Jason Cochran

Stuff you never knew you never knew




I can’t be the only one who hates when sites only show me stuff based on what I like. “Personalization,” they call it. Choice. Customization. “Navel-gazing,” I do.

Far too many sites and apps are doing this. Based on the ads it shows me, Facebook has me boiled down to a neat consumerist stereotype of a single urban male. Amazon tries it too, although my wide-ranging purchasing habits have it confused about how to pigeonhole me. Even Google News wants to know what sort of news I always read. Do I like international stories? Am I interested in business news, or health coverage?

I don’t want to tell it a thing in case it decides to withhold facts from me just because its algorithms assume I won’t care. And if, for example, I tell it that I only like health stories a little bit, how will the site decide when a story is important enough to make sure I see it? Telling Google what I usually read would subject my “need to know” to the vagaries of either its news staff’s biases or of algorithms based on what’s “popular” (read: clicked on) on a given day. Either way, something is lost. In deciding what’s important to me, I may lose what’s truly important.

I made the mistake of telling the BBC I live in America, because it immediately started omitting Britain-based news, which was a big reason I used it to begin with. Social media, by design, shows you headlines about the things your friends care about, which may expand your exposure in many cases, but depending on your circle, may not expand your range at all.

My app from the AP only wants to spoon-feed me a few stories at a time in a few genres, as if learning what’s important in a news day is as simple as browsing shelves at the Blockbuster. (Which people also don’t do anymore — now, we pretty much have to know precisely what we’re looking for when we walk up to the Redbox machine.)

And this is how we get stupider. We Westerners love our technology, and when we embrace its ability to “personalize,” we can unwittingly also embrace a shallower intellectual narrative. “I know what I like, so don’t give anything else.” “Challenges confuse me.” “I don’t need to visit the real France because I’m quite comfortable with my Epcot version, thank you very much.”

I’m no Luddite. I love my technology, and I even create “content” for the Internet. But I do miss newspapers, where at least I ran across news that I didn’t know would interest me — or was boring but important. The more my exposure to information is customized to please my pleasure, the less I’ll be given the chance to click on a headline that might have surprised, motivated, or edified me.

Stumbling across stuff that is out of your field of comfort zone is one of the healthiest activities a brain can engage in. Otherwise, how do you find new fields of interest?

Reading the news can be like travel itself. With any journey, including an intellectual one, you are challenged, and with exposure to new people and places, your interior blank areas are colored in. It expands what you know and embellishes upon what you merely thought you knew.

And just because I don’t usually read certain kinds of news doesn’t mean they’re not important to know.

These are tough times for renaissance types, but they’re great for dilettantes.

Google's personalization quiz: the path to a shallower me

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2 comments. Add a Comment:

  1. […] posts actuall serves to isolate people in their own bubbles of self-interest. I wrote about the growing intellectual dangers of “personalized” content here last […]

  2. Will Larche says:

    I hate it too. And FB keeps giving me ads for HIV related services because I’m gay. Something about that seems a little awkward.

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