Opinion Difference Engine Too Close for Comfort

FRAMINGHAM (08/01/2000) - Anyone who has seen the classic 1967 film The Graduate will likely remember the scene when Dustin Hoffman's character, the hapless Benjamin, receives a single word of career advice from an older family friend. "Plastics," says the man, leaving Benjamin somewhat bewildered.

If the same film were made today, the business mantra for young Benjamin might well be "personalization."

Personalization is one of the hallmarks of the digital age. The Internet's interactivity and depth are allowing individuals to tailor their information intake--whether it's news, music, stock quotes, research or political information. Digital consumers are also getting the chance to customize their products and even to steer social interactions in new ways, in so-called virtual communities. Personalization, in short, is giving us an unprecedented ability to control the way we experience the world.

The appeal of personalization clearly has not been lost on the dotcoms of the world. They've created a bevy of products with the prefix "my"--My AOL.com, My Yahoo, even MySAP.com. And their marketing slogans include such gems as Netscape Communication Corp.'s "The World According to You" and Microsoft Corp.'s "Where do you want to go today?" But personalization is more than just a marketing fad. It's a concept that embodies the shift in power from institutions to individuals that the Net makes possible--a shift that is evident in everything from day trading to the Napster Inc. music-download craze to the use of e-mail by dissidents in Belgrade and Beijing.

There's much to like about personalization, it's true. It can help us deal with information overload, letting us select just the facts, opinions and experiences we want. But the trend could backfire and have unforeseen consequences--both for individuals and for society.

WHEN YOU'RE ALONE

First, there is the problem of privacy. Much of the online collection of individual data happens through personalization, and it's often without the individual's consent. When we click here for this category of news or click there to customize that product, we give away revealing information about our consumer preferences. Once aggregated with demographic information--age, ZIP code, income--this data can be immensely valuable to marketers and advertisers.

But it also means that profiles are being compiled on every one of us who takes advantage of personalization.

Second, there is the prospect of narrow-mindedness. Though specialization seems inevitable in a world of ever-expanding knowledge, excessive personalization threatens to make us less well-informed. Online services like Individual.com's NewsPages and New Technology's InfoBeat offer users detailed news stories in any of thousands of hyperspecialized categories. Once users wade through the stories that are pushed to their e-mail boxes, though, how will they have time for generalized news?

And what happens to all the stories that we probably should know about but that few of us would actually select: news about Alzheimer's disease or urban poverty or campaign finance reform? Optimists might say that consumers are smart enough to keep their horizons broad, yet a significant body of psychological research demonstrates that, when given the opportunity, individuals will routinely choose to avoid information that is challenging or unpleasant.

Third, there is the danger of social fragmentation. Communities--whether local or regional or national--thrive on shared information. Without it, or some other form of common experience, it is difficult for people to feel empathy for one another, and empathy is a precursor to a strong community. In today's world, shared information generally means shared media experience. For all their failings, mass media such as newspapers, radio and TV at least give us a common frame of reference; they provide us with source material for all those proverbial watercooler conversations on topics both trivial and profound.

With personalization, on the other hand, it's not hard to envision a world in which neighbors in real space have little to talk about because they inhabit such vastly different cyberspaces.

KEEPING A BALANCE

The solutions to these problems require informed decision making. Consumers need to know more about the power--and limits--of personalization, and information professionals have a key role to play.

On the privacy front, the stakes are clear. Companies need to give Web users real notice and choice regarding use of personal information. Otherwise, they'll alienate customers, glean none of the financial benefits of personalization and risk heavy regulation.

How companies should handle the risks of narrow-mindedness and social fragmentation is less obvious. Yet there are surely ways that companies can help consumers make more responsible decisions about how far to take personalization. For example, websites and other online services that let users customize their information intake can offer not just hyperspecialized topics but broad categories of common interest. They can inform users about the importance of a well-balanced information diet--not one that is all cyber-candy. And they can help them recognize the importance of shared information to community integrity. One way a company might do this is by posting not just a privacy policy but a personalization policy that explains the company's philosophy about the benefits and drawbacks of information specialization.

Of course, information professionals who are sympathetic to these values may nonetheless doubt whether their companies will agree. But the responsible thing for corporate leaders to do--and the counsel of information professionals may be key here--is to balance social and economic imperatives. Only then can we ensure that personalization is an asset--not a liability--to society.

Do you think the world is getting too personal? Let us know atdifference@cio.com.

Andrew L. Shapiro is the author of The Control Revolution: How the Internet Is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know (PublicAffairs/Century Foundation, 1999), the revised paperback edition of which was released in June.

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