Personalized News Feeds: The Dark Side of "Have It Your Way"

Personalized feeds are very useful, but getting most of our news that way could result in less not more...

Throughout history, technology has regularly created unintended consequences and the burgeoning trend towards personalized news and information feeds has all of the potential for doing that again. And also for dishing up a generous helping of irony.

Here's why: Although the net has dramatically expanded our choices of news and other content, with "feed" technology, there's a risk that many people, instead of becoming more well-rounded and knowledgeable by tapping into this rich abundance of information, will instead become more insular, parochial, narrow, and ill-informed. Peoples' self-defined information feeds could limit their exposure to anything that falls outside of their interests, preferences and yes, their biases. It could be the Balkanization of information.

Personalized consumption has been around for a long time. We order options on cars, food in restaurants and 20 or so years ago Burger King invited us to have it our way even with fast food. That was about choice for hard goods. Then came the web and digital information, along with tools like Bookmarks and "Favorites" available to us as convenient ways to have our frequently visited web sites at a touch. RSS feeds became available so that information was pushed to us rather than us having to ask for it and we also gained the ability to opt in for chosen sales offers to be sent to our e-mail boxes or to Twitter.

Aggregation services and sites sprung up that enabled us to access content from multiple sources and several of the major newspapers entered that market (NY Times; LA Times) as well as Yahoo, Fox, NPR, and others. The Washington Post announced in early February they have joined the fray with a news service that aims to connect peoples' news preferences to their social media sites.

That helps put the world at our fingertips. Isn't that progress? How could those developments not be a good thing?

Well, yes, it's convenient. And efficient. No more extraneous, "who cares?" kind of information clutter we find in newspapers and news magazines. And for hobbyists or enthusiasts who want targeted information about wine or motorcycles or world travel, this technology makes it very easy to have boatloads of desirable information. Targeted news feeds give us exactly what we want and no more.

And while that sounds like a good thing, there's a possible dark side when that personalizing technology is used to source our news. All of the noise, all of the left-leaning or right-leaning or whatever-leaning "slant" and biases of "them" will be conveniently and methodically filtered out so that we can concentrate on listening to those voices that sound very much like our own. Voices that comfortably reinforce our own beliefs, our own assumptions, our own world views. Voices that remind us that we are right, or at least more right than "them." Why even look around at the myriad food choices at a sumptuous banquet when we only like chicken or shrimp?

My hunch is that almost no one who has left-leaning politics knows when O'Reilly or Glen Beck is on Fox or where to find Rush Limbaugh on the radio (unless you are John Stewart looking for dirt). They don't read The National Review. And similarly, people on the right likely don't know where to find NPR on the radio, would never have the NY Times as a Bookmark (unless looking for "media bias") and don't follow John Kerry's tweets. We already make choices about what we expose ourselves to. We already filter. Personalized news feeds have the potential of providing us with a new and more powerful filter.

There are experts who predict that soon we will seek most of our news from "trusted" sources (media and our friends, including social media) rather than through the newspaper or even by reading news on aggregation sites like Yahoo or Google or other major media outlets, itself a new phenomenon. The risk is that "trusted" sources are those who share our opinions and beliefs, effectively limiting exposure to non-orthodox thought. It's a sort of voluntary self-censorship. Or as the proverb quoted by Malcolm Gladwell suggests, "To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish."

Sydney J. Harris was a favorite syndicated columnist of mine years ago (he died in 1986) and would often run a column titled "Things I learned while looking up other things" which described something he found worthwhile or interesting while researching something for a column. It was accidental learning, serendipitous discovery. But as we stop reading newspapers and we wall off our exposure to general news or with views that conflict with our own, we greatly limit our potential to have an unplanned "a-ha!" or to read something that challenges our sense of surety on a belief we hold to be true. Like-mindedness can become simple-mindedness. User-defined news feeds, though useful in many ways, just might contribute to that regression.

Mike Hoban is a management consultant in his day job and can be contacted at business-at-large@sbcglobal.net

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