The claustrophobia of personalization

This past weekend I watched a couple of movies based on Netflix recommendations which dredged up films that I’d wanted to watch for ages. I liked the movies – Netflix had it right. But the process of trolling through Netflix recs leaves me with a feeling of claustrophobia. I page through screen after screen, recognizing the same attributes I find pleasing. One of the things that I like best is finding new esthetic experiences through the tastes of other people. There needs to be some commonality – I’m not going to like super-violent movies or really schmaltzy ones. But I can expand what I like by experiencing what someone else enjoys. Browsing the Netflix recs created a strange sense of ennui – being bored with my own esthetic.

John Battelle made a related point last fall, when he wrote about the limits of the spread of dependent identity on the web (you can call it “facebookification”). If your identity follows you around to different social contexts, this constrains your ability to approach new social contexts and engage yourself quietly and gradually. He gives the example of listening to a group of cyclists discuss bikes, and having his favorite model immediately shared, rather than disclosing the information gradually. The availability of immediate identity has the potential to make the online world less like an urban area, where there are new social contexts to engage with, and more like a small town, where everyone remembers what you did a decade or two ago.

Battelle suggests that social software patterns should add nuance – the ability to choose when to disclose one’s identity in a new site – to mitigate the chilling effect of premature disclosure The claustrophobia of personalization might be mitigated with different patterns, ways of adding in social influences.

In the early days of the internet, Nicholas Negroponte talked about the promise and the threat of the “daily me” – news services that support the interests and the prejudices of the viewer. Considering total and immediate personalization as the extreme of a continuum, there are interesting opportunities to add back flexibility and diversity to the experience.

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