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Is Personalization Always Dangerous?

Posted on May 21st, 2011 by Stephanie Carter
1 comment

Two days after recommending ‘personalization’ to a client’s site that wasn’t making use of user viewing history, I watched Eli Pariser’s TED talk about the filter bubble. He explains how personalization online—Google, Facebook, etc.— is dangerously limiting our world view.  I panicked, thinking I had subconsciously sipped the personalization potion. After all, much user interview analysis seemed to suggest that personalized suggestions—those that were taking into account viewing history—would enhance the already positive experience these users were having. For this client, I had assumed suggestions of relevant learning topics would be beneficial to their users. Am I wrong? I wonder, where do we draw the line between personalization that is harmless or helpful to our UX and that which skews our world view?

If I search Egypt, as Pariser reveals, I get a different result than you do, based on 57 signals that Google uses to personalize your search results. The biggest issue, he suggests, is that we don’t see what is being filtered out. It’s not as though certain results are ‘grayed out’ or off to the side. We just flat out see a selective list. Now, I want some information filtered the same for everyone – like the news, for example.  It is disturbing to think I could be viewing news online and only see travel stories while my neighbor sees stories about riots when we both search for ‘Egypt.’ But, is there information that is actually beneficial to personalize? If I go on Netflix, YouTube, Epicurious, Yelp or Amazon do I want to see the same results as my neighbors? What’s in my best interest? Or what’s in the collective best interest? Is there a metric that we can use that helps us figure out when personalization is harmless and when we should stay away?

  • Mike Vattuone

    Why not offer the personalization, but allow a feature to remove any personalization?  I don’t think we’re ever going to find some happy compromise between accessible information and personalization, and some people will always remain unhappy.  The best measure is to allow for the user to easily control the amount of filtering they want done to their information.