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At work last week a group of Digital Innovation Group members got together to discuss 2012 and the trends we predict will happen in the approaching year. It was a great discussion, as most of our brainstorms tend to be, and a lot of intelligent and insightful points were brought up. For example, one trend that anybody who works in the digital space, and pays attention to the types of apps, innovations, and businesses that have been created in the last year or so, has seen is the emphasis on personalization online. From the biggest online companies like Facebook and Google, to the smallest startups, the internet is quickly becoming a place that caters to you and your interests. You can log in to online shopping sites and suggestions are no longer based on top reviews, but on your past purchase history and browsing behavior. Most advertisements are catered to what you have shown interest in while surfing the web. Everything is being tuned to what we already enjoy and like which helps businesses (it means we’re more likely to purchase the products we see) and users (because we actually are interested instead of feeling like we’re getting spammed).
However, there’s a big flaw in the personalization of the internet that occurred to me during the team brainstorm: we are slowly moving away from the exploration and discovery that makes the internet so great.
This is really important, because the internet allows anybody access to information and resources that they would never have had twenty years ago. Our ability to find funny videos, end up reading interesting (yet, irrelevant) articles on Wikipedia, or “stumble” onto cool content via StumbleUpon is something that our (read: my generation) parents could barely have dreamed about. But we’re slowly losing the ability to find new content because everything is being spoon fed for us.
Take StumbleUpon: you hit a button and a random webpage is given to you. When you create your account you can choose your interests so that the random webpages will somewhat cater to what you’d want to be shown. I clicked as many interests as possible, even if they are only slightly interesting to me, because I want as much random content as possible. If I had only chosen sports, fitness, food, and advertising I would never see the beautiful pictures, hilarious articles, or original videos that I do end up seeing because I chose so many interests.
My mom brought me up always saying two things “Make good choices” (trying my best), and “Don’t take the easy way out.” Being fed our content is the easy way out. Sure, it makes being online easier if you have a specific goal in mind (i.e. shopping for something specific), but what about when you want to just browse around and explore? There are so many doors that are automatically closed to us. I love to explore and read about anything interesting to me. This doesn’t necessarily parallel with my browsing history or past preferences.
I think the technology to personalize the online experience is great, I really do…for certain things. When I’m going to a specific company to order something, show me what I may like from that company (I’m probably going there for something similar anyways). But, if I am just browsing the web I wouldn’t mind stumbling on to some hidden gems that don’t necessarily go along with what I’m normally interested in. That’s exactly what makes them interesting.
Are you prepared to pay the price of personalization, even if it means sacrificing your ability to explore and discover?