Digital algorithmic curation, the idea of constructing and serving digital experiences based on a user’s behavior, is meant to provide the consumer personalized experiences for higher revenue generation. From a macro perspective, however, it may also have the unintended consequence of narrowing our collective view of the world by only serving us content that we agree with and like. The tech industry should remember that users are humans. The digital experiences it serves should have a net effect that improves upon our humanity, not just our potential for incremental ROI.
The Long(er) of it:
About two years ago the word “curated” launched into the pantheon of digital buzz and promptly bludgeoned it’s way to king of the hill, shaming other raucous gladiators in the ring like “Responsive Design,” or “Omni-Channel,” or even their goofy, but potent rival “Gamification.” All still run around on the tip of our digital vocabulary, sword and shield in hand, because, buzzy as they may be, they do all mean something powerful when executed correctly.
Depending on who you talk to: marketers, customer experience gurus, developers, service designers, tech entrepreneurs, “curation” can mean a lot of different things. In digital customer experience (user experience’s cousin who went to business school) curation comes in two different forms: by hand, or by algorithm. When done by algorithm, sites and apps feed users more personalized, user-by-user unique experiences.
Algorithmic curation has become much more practice than talking point at this stage in our experience with digital platforms. Pinterest’s smart feed has been in action since around 2014 and Netflix has openly admitted that BIG data is a BIG part of how they develop content for future titles (RE: choosing Kevin Spacey to star in House of Cards because users who liked political dramas ALSO liked movies with Kevin Spacey in them). Facebook has been serving advertisements to its users through algorithm forever and its recent earnings report shows us that an algorithm based advertising platform plus mobile delivery is powerful. It’s really powerful. Of its $5.6 billion in Q4, mobile ad dollars made up over 80% of Facebook’s ad generated revenue.
Instagram recently announced that they are in the process of changing their feed to an algorithmic based service model. Not all users are down with the shift. Why? It is because of “discoverability”. Some users fear that certain types of content will drop from their feeds altogether as a result of the change. Other users are afraid that they won’t be able to monetize their own content quite as easily. That subject, however, is for a different blog post.
Digital experience has quickly become the only source many of us use for consuming media and news. Part of the beauty of the internet, or it’s supposed to be part of the beauty, is that it widens our scope. It broadens our breadth, It… you understand. When experiences are tailored to our exact preferences, our scope deepens but narrows.
This is a thought piece. So for the fun of pontification, let’s extrapolate. What happens when all of our content is curated in this manner? What happens when all of our digital experiences work hard to configure themselves, or to show us related content to our most searched searches, our most liked likes? Well, commerce is a powerful animal. We’ll stop seeing the content and having the experiences that fail to drive ROI (hint – click through rates). That means we’ll stop seeing the stuff we don’t like. We’ll stop seeing the pictures, videos, and articles that provide a non-favorable perspective, or even challenge our way of thinking. We may even stop seeing and interacting with different types of people digital platforms determine we don’t typically interact with.
Don’t get me wrong, I obviously don’t believe that algorithmic curation is all a bad thing (RE: Oh I don’t know, SO many things – Pandora, YouTube… House of Cards). Big tech also does a good job in providing an alternative to curated and personalized experiences by serving feeds with content that a specific user is not guaranteed to interact with. YouTube and Pinterest do a nice job of this with tabs for trending and most recently added content.
I do think, however, in a future where the gladiator of algorithmic curation will rule with a sword that can cut through noise that other marketing can’t, it is worth considering the a high level perspective. Ad dollars aside, the tech industry (looking at you Instagram) should ask questions like “what does a personalized experience give the customer here? What will the net effect be on the humans we serve?” For those of us smaller players in the space, we should be asking the same questions. What do our digital experiences do to help our user groups outside the specific interactions that generate dollars? Is the net effect of interacting with our platforms a positive and beneficial one?
Hopefully the answer to that last question is yes. I for one would like to live in a world where the gladiator is fighting for me. We’ve all seen what Russell Crowe did to crazy Joaquin Phoenix on the end of Gladiator. Yeesh.