The Pleasures (and Perils) of Personalized News

Tosca Fasso   April 14, 2012

We tried this ice cream for you. We think you’ll like it. (photo by cybertoad)

Not so long ago, the news arrived through set media channels and at set times. You could read the morning paper at the kitchen table, listen to the morning news on the car radio during your commute, and then watch the evening report on TV before or after dinner. And that was pretty much it.

Whether you cared most about technology, were hungry for more fashion updates, or needed to cram about Lebanon for a school paper, you got the same news everyone else got—and at the same time, too.

The last decade brought technology advances that made it possible to watch and listen to previously aired news broadcasts at any time on a connected device. DVRs, podcasts, and even YouTube lent a new freedom to the consumption of news by making the news available when and where users had time to watch or listen.

The Stones Were Wrong

As we enter the era of personalization—the ability to actively select and refine our personal preferences for the news we choose to expose ourselves to—those once-exciting technology advances are starting to seem quaint. Now, when it comes to the news, you can always get what you want—whenever you want it. So what’s wrong with that?

In a post on Own Local, blogger Jeremy Mims cautions that  “… news personalization inherently creates an echo chamber for bad ideas, reinforces preconceived beliefs, and may actually lead people to believe they’re making informed decisions because ‘everyone’ agrees. It will also tend to radicalize and become even more limited over time, because it naturally funnels down to the news you really like.”

In a direct response to Mims, blogger Evan Willms counters that personalization makes it “…possible to explore the big world of diverse opinions in a gradual way by using the topics you’re already interested in to branch out and provide a variety of viewpoints and subject matter.”

Both use the metaphor of publisher-as-nutritionist to drive home their positions. Mims likens news personalization to allowing children to eat only ice cream, while Willms believes publishers can act as “smart nutritionists” who can “…expand your love of chocolate ice cream with other types of chocolate product.” Culinary metaphors aside, both have a point. So what’s a content strategist to do?

Networked News

In addition to the issue of limitation vs. exploration, we believe there’s another consideration when it comes to the personalization of news: that of tool vs. network.

A tool performs a function for users (think NPR’s Infinite Player). You engage with the interface, enter or select some criteria, and get something back. Maybe you refine your results over a certain period of time, or maybe you’re done in one click. Either way, it’s just you and the tool.

On the other hand, a network offers the functionality of a tool but also connects you to other users, and, by extension, to their ideas and preferences. The thought is that a network should offer a “stickier” experience—if your friends are on there, inspiring you and stretching your interests, you’ll be more likely to stay. Additionally a network can also act as a sort of community police for our better selves. Who wants to broadcast that they’ve just read another article about the Kardashians?

But what if your friends aren’t on your news network? Smart editorial strategy can help. The Washington Times’ news personalization service Trove doesn’t make connecting with friends, coworkers and influencers as seamless as it should be. But through “this or that” functionality, editors’ picks, and a smart search box, it does do a nice job of suggesting and encouraging content I wouldn’t otherwise have thought to request.

Personalization can be used to either reinforce our existing beliefs and interests, or it can expand our exposure through influence and encouragement. In other words, it can be reactive (and allow us to limit ourselves) or predictive (and inspire and encourage us to expand our horizons).

Extra, Extra!

It all comes down to strategy. Why limit news personalization to what I’m looking for right now? In a post on disambiguation for Contents Magazine, Rachel Lovinger, Content Strategy Director at Razorfish NY, states “Traditionally, one obstacle has been that sites like the New York Times didn’t have access to as much data…as sites like Amazon or Netflix. But that’s changing with deeper social integration. Now, if you sign in with Facebook, the Times will have a better idea what articles you like, share, and comment on. So, why aren’t they making use of that data to provide their readers a more engaging experience?”

Indeed. Why not use my current interests to preview and suggest what I consider “stretch” content—essentially what I asked for and more (e.g., my love of Spanish shoes may suggest an interest in Spanish food, and if I click on that content, I may also be intrigued by Spanish economics on a subsequent visit).

Of the options for news personalization I’ve tried so far, Zite is probably the frontrunner. I logged in with Twitter, and the iPad/iPhone app pre-filled my feed with Social Media, Technology, Content Strategy, Strategy, and Marketing. Pretty accurate for taking just a couple of seconds with a single input. Zite also offers “Featured” content types from which you can add more topics.

It’s a great tool, but as a network it ultimately falls short, only including your Twitter friends’ news posts and also which articles are getting the most buzz in its algorithm for external influence. Additionally, Zite gets “smarter” as you use it, learning from your behavior, so it’s unclear whether this perpetuates the echo chamber effect, or if it’s somehow more nuanced and helps you explore more interesting content.

When a news personalization service—tool or network—develops an algorithm, who are they catering to, our current selves or our ideal selves? I’m hoping they’ll start to do both. A primary goal of a news organization is to make us care about things we didn’t think we cared about.

As content strategists, we can help. By understanding the limits and possibilities of a tool vs. a network, we can better guide our clients and co-workers to choose the more effective option for their goals. Our editorial expertise can help inform a smart editorial strategy that is built on something bigger than showing “what’s hot right now”. And of course, our experience with metadata and taxonomy can help teams design sophisticated algorithms that do more than just serve up what the user wants right now. In other words, with the influence of content strategy, news personalization services can start to show us not just who we are, but also who we want to be.

One Response

  1. Matt Musick says:

    Things will really get tricky when TV becomes perceptive and the same episode of a show we watch simultaneously will have different endings.

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