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February 12, 2005

From Personalization to Socialization

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Posted by Ross Mayfield

Wednesday night a bunch of bloggers and media executives attended a Yahoo! briefing on Personalization. Susan Mernit noted:

Yahoo's potential to own a huge piece of the blogosphere via distribution, tool sets and content acquisition did not go unnoticed by media companies in the room---just the perception they can dominate could possibly spur progress by online newspapers (I hope.) Grassroots media folk and search companies present at the event took notice as well.

Yahoo has blended personalization and RSS to form the most widely used aggregator on the planet. Keep in mind that the vast majority of traffic goes through a handful of portals (and an oligopoly of carriers) and mainstream attention follows the power-law. Most users do not enjoy the diversity or serendipity that blog readers do. Blog writers who want to make impressionistic returns will feed off of major portals. Somewhere in middlespace, the bottom up will be incented by the top down. A new editor is rising and it isn't your blogging client, nor branded aggregators, its an algorithm that supposedly will grow to know you better than people can.

Personalization is supposed to be the answer for how industrial era print media evolves into the information age. A shift from media companies broadcasting to the world to the media broadcasting to you.

If you share your tastes and demands, you get matching information. You browse without effort, sit back and consume. This is sheer bliss for marketers, you also get increasingly framejacked ads. With search, you narrowcast what you are looking for and get ads that supposedly could be helpful along the way. For now, there is no memory of your queries and profiling for others, but it will happen as a personalized search is a useful engine.

Corporate personalization is also a bargain of consummate efficiency. The value proposition of enterprises portals is reducing the time spent looking for information. Of course, part of the contract for employees is to perform a specific function and submit any conceivable data to assist the system There are no ads, all interactions are commerce, yielding ruthless modeled efficiency.

The criticisms of personalization as an instrument of control are not new. Yahoo! is actually taking personalization into new directions by emphasizing user programmability. And a branded aggregator is based on open standards, which is a big leap into a second web. But its important to realize that Personalization is not a world of ends and the means of the trend ensnare us just as before.

Over the next year or so, every major portal will have personalized aggregation of RSS. I say personalized because branded aggregators will have initial appeal the existing audience of a media site, but have no differentiation. Older media will apply traditional editorship to suggest the best feeds according to expert judgment. Newer media will suggest feeds based on what we like. Both approaches will provide limited differentiation, but even more limited utility -- because finding feeds is not a significant problem when most posts in a feed provide their own suggestions, link by link.

Brandmasters will disagree. They will say their promise is strong and trust held by the audience will lead them to trust their expert or automated judgment. But being a provider of information does not beget a relationship, you have no clue if your audience is even impressed. People trust themselves over brands and now they have their fingers on the unsubscribe button for anything they are fed. They roll their own media personally. And before trusting a brand, people are inclined to trust other people -- the promise of influential people is stronger than brands. Now more information flows through and between them, and these flows underpin relationships. Every meme is underwritten by social capital. The most influential mass or custom marketing is in concert with buzz. All media becomes saturated with advertising and consumers are sensitized with each new form. Today this happens at an accelerated pace.

A corporate portal may provide information required for process, but will fail to inform decisions when exceptions happen and hinder my ability to form relationships that help resolve them. Worse, without a diversity of input and the socialization of information, saving time looking for information is pointless when the information isn't shared in the first place.

The basic problem with Personalization is that tailoring information to you limits social discovery. Users contribute value to the database only for them and the service provider, not for each other. People design algorithms outside social context, and error arises in profiling, categorization and filtering. Narrowcasting creates micro-silos as it limits a user's view from more diverse and otherwise peripheral information compared to modes of browsing and searching. Over time, users are taught to rely upon this mode as their primary source of information. Nowhere in this mode is sharing, conversations, remixing and socializing information.

By contrast, consider how social software enables people to create their own networks. Groups form, information is shared and implicit and explicit relationships are fostered. Profiles, ties, posts, links and tags provide dimensions to explore. Spam happens as a consequence of openness, but as social networks become the new filters, it is a minor problem and yields benefits of connecting people. The appeal of personalization is sheer convenience. Today social software fails, with a few exceptions, to deliver the same level of convenience at scale, but give it time.

Replace the word information with relationship, and you get how people want to use the net, with other people. What is shared through filters is very different from a blogger saying, "hey, my group of readers would be interested in this," or "Doc makes a fine point, but when you consider what Jon says it really changes things," or "everybody I know is talking about this." When my network socializes information for me as a natural byproduct of interaction, while respecting my privacy (an important aspect of keeping things personal), I discover relationships that make my life convenient and empowered.

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. me on February 12, 2005 5:40 PM writes...

I trust Furl to recomend other people who's feeds are similar enough to mine that they are useful to me. I still get enough info from outside my own perspective, but perhaps that's b/c my perspective in unique enough to be unreproducable. (isn't yours?)

I have been wondering today whether a bigger silo threat than personalization is the fact that we all read the same handful of uberblogs. Perhaps it's the Gilmore Gang that's turning me into an automaton (albeit with 5 choices of perspectives)...I ballance that out with and the Global Shortwave Report ( for my media diversity. Perhaps making sure to give our brains some breathing time outside the for-profit world is the key (eg. go listen to Ward Churchill on!) perhaps failure to get enough anti-establishment content is the real lock-in...

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2. Christopher Carfi on February 12, 2005 6:16 PM writes...

Strongly agreed...personalization / long tail discovery is only part of the way down the path. The relationships that are activated as a result of the personalization are the true end point of this (for now, at least). More thoughts.

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3. Bud Gibson on February 13, 2005 7:14 PM writes...

[This comment also appears on my own blog where you left the following remark:

"Content can come before connection and connection can come before content. Relationships are substrate, not an overlay.

I am not saying relationships are property and Socialtext certainly doesn't seek to own them as such."

I thought it might be useful to post my response here too where it has some context.]

I think we probably agree that relationships certainly impact a lot of how we communicate. Echoing Fredrik Wacka's trackback, my observation comes more from practical experience where people do not immediately leap on the notion of relationship but do want to facilitate communication and search.

As regards, owning relationships, I don't expect you want that at SocialText. I expect you do want to own the space where the relationships occur. Sort of like cafe owners who want to own the venue. In the virtual world, I think that means owning the archive, the URL, and providing various nifty, proprietary (but open-standard based) interfaces for interacting.

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4. Ross Mayfield on February 14, 2005 12:40 PM writes...

Bud, Socialtext does not own spaces where relationships occur, that's what we sell. We make cafes and help pour coffee now and then.

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5. Bill Seitz on February 15, 2005 10:53 AM writes...

Not many of the social-software services have provided much SocialNetwork socialization of information. Where's the DayPop top-40 listing just among my network? Partially because they just haven't gotten to it yet, partially maybe because it can be rather expensive (in terms of scalability).

re: information blinders: obviously personalization features can add some sort of way of exposing you to things outside your normal ruleset. This could be totally random, or a more subtle way of "stretching" the boundaries of your normally-optimized info space (e.g. your rule set defines "points" for various nodes in the global info space, and personalization concentrates on showing you just the bits with the most points - but it can also allocate a bit of attention to items with somewhat-lower point levels to "take a chance"). One of the music streaming service (maybe LaunchCast?) did a nice job of collaborative filtering, with a way to set a "random level". And DavidBrin wrote about this as part of his *Earth* book.

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