Sameer Siruguri

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The Dark Side Of The Personalized Web

There has been a consumer revolution in the last decade, along the lines of what happened in the fifties during the “Mad Men” hey-day, but not all is good when there is so much consumer choice. Nothing exemplifies this better than how consumption of media has shifted from the traditional pull model to the socialized push model of Facebook and Twitter.

Some of these changes have happened even within this decade, so rapid has been the evolution of the consumer Internet in the last few years. One example of how the pull model was supported by what is now the “old” technology is RSS, and the story of how it has been supplanted by social media.

According to a Forrester’s consumer survey, the share of US adults using RSS feeds has been steadily declining since 2008. What are the factors that could have led to this demise? RSS is after all a pretty simple technology with a powerful promise – publishers and consumers can establish a direct relationship, and consumers can combine feeds to create their own personalized newspapers.

The major factor has been the flourishing of alternate modes of discovering content that have been fostered by sites like Facebook. With RSS, consumers have a small but significant barrier to entry – they have to discover the feeds on their own. RSS technology provides publishers a way to advertise where their content is, but figuring out where this has been advertised can be daunting for the average, non-tech-savvy user. The RSS feed is denoted by a URL, which is then buried somewhere on the site or has to be extracted from the source code of a webpage. Even for someone who knows to look for RSS feeds, the former task is irksome; the latter is nigh impossible.

From 2000, when the initial RSS spec was created, to about 2008, RSS had a good run. Major news publications adopted it, and it always had the support of major online portal and blogging platforms. Producing an RSS feed was easy, and once you found the feed, you added it to a reader, which could easily parse the feed to make sure you always had the most up-to-date set of articles from the publisher.

Enter Facebook, circa 2008. The fundamental insight that Mark Zuckerberg had, which has transformed consumer usage of the Internet, is that in any content-producing network of producers and consumers, consumer form the vast majority, sometimes as much as 99%, of the network. On Facebook, people will spend most of their time reading what their friends are recommending.This is a mode of consumption that takes away the first requirements of RSS usage – that the consumer has to be pro-active in discovering content he likes. Instead, now the consumer can simply wait for someone in his “friends” network to find content and broadcast it to the network.

The other insight that Mark had, this time on the producer/publisher side of the equation, was that publishers don’t need to advertise all of their content. Rather, they can produce a few break-out articles whose popularity will ensure that the publisher’s brand will be cemented in people’s minds. How do these breakout articles get found? Through social media, or, in Facebook’s language, the Like button.

Facebook shifted the founding location of theĀ  relationship between consumer and publisher, from the consumer’s desktop which was where RSS had established it, to the publisher’s webpage, where there was now a Like button. Furthermore, Facebook made it extremely easy to find and use the Like button. With the RSS feed, after you had discovered the URL, you had to copy and paste it into your reader. Sure, you could use Firefox’s feed discovery button or you could use a feed reader service like Feedburner or Technocrati, but these methods came with various limitations. The biggest one perhaps was that the feeds you found, either on the publisher’s site or at a reader service, were too broad – the categories on the NYT feed reader page for example are World, Arts, Business and so on.

In contrast, hitting the Like button a single webpage allows you to make a very specific connection, that is limited to a webpage rather than to the topic of the webpage. The Like button is right there, in a prominent, iconic, form that you can click with a mouse gesture, rather than as a URL that you have to at best perform multiple mouse gestures to incorporate into your daily reading.

So what did we, as consumers, gain and lose, in this shift? Certainly, more of us get to participate now in discovering and sharing content we like, because of the lowered barrier to entry. It’s as easy as hitting the Like button, if you want your friends to know what you’re reading, and it’s as easy as logging into Facebook, if you want to know what your friends are reading. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and other such services also make it easy to perform these interactions on your phone, a transition that few feed readers have achieved successfully, partly because designing a good interface on a small device for managing a large list of feeds is much harder than designing one that’s only meant to show a single, real-time, feed.

What we lost, however, was the direct connection we had with publishers. RSS allowed us to establish a connection with publishers that was entirely in our control because the connection was instantiated on our desktop, or in any other client of our choosing. Facebook has supplanted that entirely. Everything we like and want to access and share is now stored on Facebook’s servers, which can be taken away from us at short notice.

We also lost privacy. Mark never wanted us to have private interactions, that leaves us anonymous with respect to the publishers. He certainly isn’t allowing our interactions to be kept private from Facebook, because our preferences and inclinations are what he’s monetizing as part of Facebook’s business.

In all of this, what Mark has discovered is something generations of brand managers and propagandists of all stripes have known before him – people in general want to feel that their choices are validated by their peer group, and that making a selection is satisfying only to the extent that there’s immediate feedback that the choice is shared and supported by people regarded as being “experts” or “popular.” Facebook provides this feedback instantaneously – in fact, the dynamics of Facebook invert the temporality of the choice by allowing individuals to know what their friends like before they make their own selection. Hitting the Like button on someone else’s status update essentially means that you’re guaranteed that at least one person likes what you like, and if your friend’s update already has a large number of Likes to start with, that’s even better.

Personalization in this regard is illusory. The choices we make are in fact created for us, though in the subtlest way, and the illusion is expertly maintained by the mechanics of the Like button. The Like button convinces us that we’re each contributing our own, individual, opinion to the mix, but our opinion matters little, especially because of how easy it is to use the button. We have devalued our personal opinion, and our choice, by giving it away so frequently, and by choosing more often than not, to make a selection that follows someone else’s decision rather than initiating an independent line of thought.

 

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