There’s more reason to be excited rather than worried that Facebook, Google, Twitter and a long list of other web services are asking users to share more information publicly.
Many have raised concerns that Facebook’s latest feature, which allows any website to add a “like” button to its contents, will lead to a vast database of information that Facebook can sell to marketers and advertisers. The company’s innovations, however, will bring users more efficiency, expertise and connectivity than ever before.
Though many use the social networking service primarily for looking at photos and keeping in touch with friends, these information-collecting websites could offer people something more.
Now, when you’re signed into Facebook and visit the Internet radio service Pandora, the website will start playing a song from one of your favorite artists. Then it moves on to songs it knows you’ve frequently discussed on Facebook, followed by a song whose lyrics were in your status a few weeks ago.
Creepy? Yes. Brilliantly efficient? Yes.
Without ever having to type a word, Pandora knew what music you liked and played it on your computer. This is exactly what Facebook’s new “instant personalization” feature does.
In the future, it could get even better. Five minutes after Tweeting that you’re bummed because you failed a test, you fire up Pandora and it plays some upbeat, high-intensity songs to cheer you up.
Browsing a website, such as nytimes.com, could also become simpler someday. The newspaper produces far too much content to sift through. What if, upon your visit, the site told you what your Facebook friends had been reading, liking and writing statuses about. You’d be guaranteed to be in the loop, and the issue of scanning through pages of headlines to find relevant news becomes a tad easier. Right now, you can only get this “magical” experience — as Facebook calls it — on CNN.com.
How exciting does it sound to one day walk into Ralphs and receive a text message with an automatically generated shopping list that includes aisle numbers for where items can be located and coupons for the items on sale? All of this information could come from a calculation based on your status update about craving Mexican food, the Mexican restaurants you’ve reviewed on Yelp and your Google searches for Mexican recipes before leaving for the store.
Personalization is a reason to worry about privacy. Having the ability to control how much information people know about us is part of what makes us feel human.
Although some say social networking sites take away the ability to control your personal information, Facebook and other websites have actually reminded us about this control mechanism and enhanced our ability to segregate who gets what. It reminds people to stay clear of activities and habits that society would perceive negatively.
Facebook has always been good at quickly disseminating information to many people. For instance, say you post that you bought tickets to a Ke$ha concert. Not all of your friends need to know about that fact; only your friends with similar music tastes really care. Those friends that visit Ticketmaster.com might also be swayed to buy a ticket if they’re told you’ve already bought one. Personalization means pulling information from a vast pool of knowledge and placing it directly in front of the eyes of the right person. It’s targeted and efficient.
One downside to the hyper-
personalization of your experiences on the Internet appears to be the fact that certain objects, websites and news will fall between the cracks, leaving people misguided and misinformed. For many years, sociologists have studied self-selection, the method by which people choose to hear what they want to hear and ignore what they don’t want to hear.
Personalization could make this problem worse. To counteract this, websites could appoint expert content editors to essential news items the general public feels are important.
This would bring the values of impact and popularity to the personalized collection of information, offering people a more valuable experience.
As far as the inextricable link between loosening the grips on the concealment of our lives and the benefits of personalization, the rewards rule.
Paresh Dave is a freshman majoring in print journalism.