I've heard -- or read -- this last complaint multiple times over the past week. If search results are too personalized, the story goes, you'll miss out on all that wonderful non-personalized content you've been ingesting. You won't get to laugh delightfully at that random video about babies or kittens, the one you never would have found had it not been for the sheer serendipity of the untargeted Interweb.
We don't know what we don't know, but we know that we wish we knew it, whatever it was.
But here's the thing: as much as we want to stumble across every interesting tidbit out there, each of us will still only ever intersect with a microfraction of the content in the world. And let's do a quick poll: Do you suffer from too little information or too much?
I was pondering my own personal information overload as I skimmed through the 100 or so Google Alerts, MediaPost columns, and other assorted emails I read every week as preparation for this column. I was thinking how great it would be if I could have a sort of personalized Alltop for column ideas, something that trolled through my Inbox for me, sorted out the repeats and popular story threads, and figured out which sixteen links I would click on. It would have to be beyond personalized; it would have to know what I liked and disliked, what I had the potential to like or dislike, what I thought was a good idea for an article and which good ideas were over my head.
I don't care what the publishers and BT companies tell you; people don't care about seeing more relevant ads. Those ads are the price. The carrot is helping us cut to the chase. Our need to keep our heads above the buffeting waves of information is getting stronger by the day -- and we pay for the life jacket with our private data.
We pay for Amazon's effortless recommendations. We pay for Google's personalized search results. We pay through the nose for the ability to connect online.
We give up our data to the privacy gods because we recognize the benefits we get from doing so. We seem to have tossed the entire Internet into the same basket as bank loans and car insurance and doctors and therapists: If you want results, you have to swallow your prudishness and get naked.
I had the good fortune to see Hal Varian, Google's Chief Economist, speak a few months ago. He pointed out something that in retrospect is blindingly obvious: People aren't generally worried about the use of their data, they're worried about its mis-use.
We're worried that there'll be an AOL Valdez or that some 13-year-old will hack Facebook. Addressing those concerns calls more for a security discussion than for a privacy one -- but even the federal government seems to feel that unsolicited third-party ads are the biggest threat from an invasion of online privacy.
The fact that that's the case is a testament to how blessed we are, a tribute to the civil rights we take for granted. In countries that don't have our basic protections, privacy can serve as protection against jail or execution.
If third-party ads are all we have to worry about, I'll happily give up my privacy in exchange for a bit of personalized filtering. What's your price?