The social media ‘echo chamber’ has been much discussed over the past year. The echo chamber describes the tendency of social networks, particularly Facebook, to lock users into personalized feedback loops based on past engagement with content in such a way that they eventually consume only political content that affirms existing beliefs. We now exist firmly within our ideological comfort zones, rarely exposed to opposing views, spoon fed a constant stream of congratulations about how right we are.
It is a phenomena that has drawn ire from commentators across the political spectrum for the part it has played in the increasing polarization of politics and the rise of populism. Articles such as ‘How the Internet Is Loosening Our Grip on the Truth’, ‘How to Escape Your Political Bubble for a Clearer View’, and ’Is Your Online World Just a ‘Filter Bubble’ of People With the Same Opinions?’ have all been damning indictments of social media’s role in our new consumption of news.
That all three of these articles came from the New York Times is somewhat ironic, however, given the newspaper giant’s recent announcement that they intend to increase personalization themselves, with public editor Liz Spayd writing that this year they ’will begin an ambitious new effort to customize the delivery of news online by adjusting a reader’s experience to accommodate individual interests. What readers see when they come to The Times will depend on factors like the specific subjects they are most interested in, where they live or how frequently they come to the site.’
‘More limited experiments are already underway. News alerts, among the primary uses of personalization right now, may be different depending on a particular reader’s location,’ writes Spayd. ‘But these are small lab tests compared with the plans editors have for a next-generation New York Times, one that shifts from monolithic to something more bespoke.’
Response from the readership has been almost universally negative. In the comments section, Chris G noted ‘I do not want a ‘bespoke’ NYTimes *experience*. I want the news. I want the newspaper with the editorial decisions of what is above the fold important news and what should be on page 12. I pay for a subscription for a reason: the judgement and experience of the editors and writers that make this paper great. Don't try to be Facebook or Twitter. Be the New York Times and do it right.’ Another reader with the pseudonym ‘mancuroc’ notes, ’It may be OK when I'm shopping for books on Amazon, but it doesn't belong on nytimes.com. Part of looking at a printed newspaper is finding things that you may not have looked for and which turn out to be interesting.’ Others were little more positive.
The project is still in the experimentation stages, and in a follow-up piece responding to readers’ concerns, Kinsey Wilson, the executive vice president of product and technology and editor for innovation and strategy, said, ‘Creating personalized filter bubbles is the antithesis of what The Times stands for’ and was not at all what they were trying to achieve. Whether they do eventually manage to strike this balance remains to be seen, but the response from readers says everything you need to know about how the public now feels about personalization - especially when it comes to the news.
Personalization has long been held up as one of the most important benefits of big data and analytics. Marketers have used it to great effect, tailoring their messages for individuals and providing them with material that specifically appeals to them. The push for personalization by publishers, therefore, does have a certain logic to it. Organizations and publications are looking to stay ahead of the curve and try to anticipate trends, particularly in the challenging landscape that they are currently operating in. They have to figure out how to make their audiences actually come to their site so advertisers are satisfied, and data is the obvious place to start when it comes to optimizing customer experience. And if it has worked for marketing, why not them too?
Metro's Digital Director, Martin Ashplant, for one, argues that, ‘Personalization, done well, should be something all publishers are looking closely at right now. At Metro, we believe there is a massive consumer demand to help cut through the noise of infinite available content by providing a finishable set of stories which are relevant to each user. We are using artificial intelligence to achieve this goal - and the objective is always to learn what it is that each user is interested in and provide them with the most relevant content for them.’
Equally, however, marketing material and the news are very different things. People, in the main, do not want to receive marketing materials, and they only really tolerate those directly relevant to them. When it comes to the news, people do not know what it is going to be ahead of time, and they want to be presented with a diverse range of opinions as to what it means for them, usually opinions they have yet to think of themselves. At least, they will say they do, nobody is going to say that they’re happy in their bubble and don’t want to hear the views of others. People do not want news organizations to simply show them what they want to see, they want them to tell them what’s important, and they are trusted to do that.
The experience of other publishers who have already tried personalization seems to confirm this. Buzzfeed's head of European growth, Luke Lewis notes: ‘It's kind of a myth that readers love personalization. They often say they do in surveys, but when you look at the data the engagement with those tools is generally low. Particularly with news, readers are reluctant to edit their own feed too much in case they miss out on important stories. Too much personalization also kills the serendipity element. It's part of the mix, but it shouldn't dominate your thinking as a publisher.’ Michael Boord, global director of mobile products at the Associated Press, agrees, noting of the personalization options available in the app that ‘Frankly, our users don’t use it very much.’
There are positives to be taken from the backlash. For one, there is little mention of how creepy it is that online agencies know so much about you, and little talk of data collection, which could suggest the public is becoming more comfortable with it. However, whether publishers like it or not, personalization is now synonymous with filter bubbles that have contributed to our current fractious political climate and fraying public discourse. It may sound like something you need to do, but too often it is a case of an engineer wanting to create some aspect of a personalized experience just to prove that, technically, it can be done, or a business wanting to do it because they heard at a conference that it’s the thing to do. Users should always be at the center of this, though, and it appears that when it comes to content curation, the results are in. And it’s a no.