The promise of personalization in digital media is one of those stories I seem to have been writing again and again for the decade and a half I now have been covering these platforms. From the early and failed push platforms of the late '90s to MyYahoo to the many, many attempts to leverage behavioral tracking for customized Web site experiences, we keep looking for ways to craft media that is precisely targeted to user interests.
Traditional media have always been torn over these models. On the one hand, personalized content seems to have automatic appeal to users who are overwhelmed with information in the data-drenched age of digital. On the other hand, letting user customization or even passive behavioral tracking fully determine a data stream undermines the editorial function of media and cuts the user off from serendipitous discovery. Worse, it turns out that most users don't really want to work too hard at customization. For years publishers told me that at best 10% of their visitors bothered to use customization features when they were available.
The personalization theme emerges again on mobile platforms because we presume people want the most relevant stream of information on a platform that is both highly personal but also more limited in its display capabilities. For months now I have been playing with several tablet-based news aggregators that employ different types of personalization features: Zite, Flipboard and Showyou. What is curious about all of them is that the layers of behavioral or social data that inform the selections are so transparent that they are hard for the consumer to notice and value. It makes me wonder whether there is a cost to transparency and whether end users really can distinguish among providers.
In pivoting from an online personalized news service to an app-based aggregator, Zite got itself into trouble initially with major media companies that issued cease and desist orders because the company appeared to be aggregating content without the attached advertising that monetized it for the publishers. They have made amends since and revised their presentation model.
I have become a fan of Zite, which I now consult on iPad at least as much as I do Flipboard. I wish I knew why I liked it, however. Zite employs both my usage patterns as well as a reading of the content zeitgeist and my Twitter/Google Reader feeds to determine what stories I am most likely to want to read in a series of topic categories. I like the way the stories are presented visually, which may be as much a part of the appeal as the selection, and generally I find the first couple of pages of choices targeted to my tastes. For instance, In the Arts & Culture section, stories related to book-length fiction seem to float to the top, and this certainly reflects the interests I demonstrate through click behavior.
Now on Flipboard, the aggregation experience is being driven more directly by the social layer, both mine and the overall Twitter/Facebook universe as well as my Google Reader feed. Exactly how this mix works is still unclear to me as the user. Flipboard does actually source its references, so you can see which stream provided the link. When I first started using Flipboard, I actually did see referrals from identifiable Facebook friends, but now the items are sourced more from feeds I have not subscribed to anywhere. I can't tell what is informing the choices so much anymore. But only by comparison to Zite, this end user can see that Flipboard favors popular stories from major media sources. It feels more like a scrape of top headlines than Zite, which tends to get more obscure.
The strangest of the personalized content experience I get on the iPad is from the video clips aggregator Showyou. This one really does make extensive use of the Twitterstream to provide an attractive wall of thumbnails that click into clips. In addition to relying on your Twitter subscribers for referrals, the service does let you add in other popular people and feeds to thicken the range of video material. The selling point for Showyou initially was that it is AirPlay-capable. For owners of an iPad and Apple TV, the videos you show on the tablet can be transferred at will to your TV screen. In essence it creates a unique personalized video aggregation experience on your TV.
But for me the end result has been unsatisfying. Perhaps it is the quality of my Twitter-verse, or just the kinds of videos that get shared here, but my collection is a hodgepodge of clips that generally do not interest me. It feels more like a random selection from YouTube.
Oddly enough, the basic purpose of personalized aggregators is to minimize the number of sources a mobile user needs to consult. It turns out that I end up using multiple aggregators, however, in much the same way I use multiple primary news sources. I also use vertical aggregators for Apple-related news and video games news from others, even though I also have those channels in Zite and Flipboard. The aggregators, too, have styles and emphases much like primary sources, and so this user ends up still consulting multiple aggregation sources.
No one size does fit all in the end. Behavioral and social data help filter some news, but ultimately the media-grazing habit is still fueled by the fear of missing something. No matter how many algorithms we throw at media distribution and consumption, I wonder if we ever will trust the big robot in the cloud to determine what we do and don't see.