Commentary

Word Ploy: Facebook's Misuse of 'Personalization'

facebookI'm not a language snob or a nitpicker, and I have resigned myself to the corporate practice of inventing new words and burying things in opaque doublespeak to make it almost impossible to know what, in fact, you are trying to talk about. But sometimes I can't help but notice when executives seize on a nice-sounding word and employ it in a way that completely contradicts what it actually means; this is especially grating when it appears to be a deliberate, disingenuous PR tactic.

The most recent offender is Facebook, which has stirred controversy with a new program that will share information about Facebook members including their names, profile pictures, gender, and network of friends with other companies so they can target online content and advertising more precisely (beginning with Yelp, Microsoft Docs, and Pandora). In a champion feat of euphemizing, Facebook is calling this program "Instant Personalization." Let's compare rhetoric to reality.

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The online Oxford English Dictionary defines "personalize" as a verb meaning "to design or produce (something) to meet someone's individual requirements." Facebook's "instant personalization" fails to conform to this definition across the board.

First of all, Facebook didn't "design or produce" anything for the individual user: it is sharing information about users with other sites, which may deliver pre-existing content or advertising to the users based on their data. This is simply an attempt to exploit existing information and assets more efficiently. To the extent that anything "personal" has been produced, it came from the users themselves, when they created their Facebook profiles. All Facebook is doing is combing the profiles for data that will enable other sites to market to users more effectively.

This brings us to the second point: "instant personalization" doesn't aim "to meet someone's individual requirements," for the obvious reason that none of Facebook's members ever demanded (or probably even imagined) such a "service." Even more egregiously, Facebook is introducing "instant personalization" en masse, signing everybody up automatically and forcing individual users to opt out. This sweeping, top-down implementation -- treating users like an anonymous herd of Internet cattle -- is about as far away from "personalization" as you can get.

Finally, the pairing of the words "instant" and "personalization" is almost a contradiction in terms: if something is prepared for you automatically by machines, there is nothing "personal" about it. Automated call centers address you by name, pitching products and services based on your past purchases and demographic information -- but would anyone really call this "personalized" marketing communications? I personally call it intrusive and unnerving.

3 comments about "Word Ploy: Facebook's Misuse of 'Personalization'".
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  1. Roger Harris from Harris Social Media, May 17, 2010 at 5:17 p.m.

    Good points here Erik. Sadly, if recent history is anything to go by calling them out for even something as egregious as this will be unlikely to change FB's heavy-handed approach.

  2. Steve Sarner from Tagged, May 17, 2010 at 6:08 p.m.

    This practice reminds me of political committees that take on contrived names to sound as if they are patriotic or independent blocks of citizens but are actually funded by narrow self interest groups.

    An example is coming up in California this June on a proposition that was crafted by Pacific Gas and Electric – one of the major corporate utilities in the state. I am taking a stand on the measure either way here but rather just pointing out that the whole campaign is being forwarded by a committee and site called “tax payers right to vote”.

    That sounds perfectly reasonable and like a grass roots community group. In reality it is this single corporation that is putting forth the measure to try to limit local government ability to set up a competing utility.

    Just like “instant personalization”. Well stated Erik!

  3. Anne Hohenberger from Teletech Comm, May 17, 2010 at 9:19 p.m.

    Instant exploitation? Ha! "Personalized exploitation"!

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