Donal Reddington on mass customization, crowdsourcing and digital manufacturing

Articles say “Personalization Promotes Selfishness; Destroys Community”

I’ve read a couple of articles recently that focus on personalization in relatively diverse sectors, but I was struck by the somewhat common theme running through both: that personalization promotes ‘too much’ individuality.

The first article is by Linda Matchan, and originally appeared in the Boston Globe, where it is only accessible to registered users, but you can read the full text on The Financial Express in India.

Linda writes that:

The ‘Me Generation’ of yesteryear had nothing on today’s culture of ultra “me-ness” which is enabled by an Extreme Me marketplace of products and Web offerings.

She describes various well-known examples of consumer products that can be personalized, and quotes various commentators, some of whom describe personalization as a type of narcissism.

Another article which is unrelated at first glance, but actually has some similarity of theme, is Jason Fry‘s piece in the Wall Street Journal. He writes about his experiences of traditional (CD) and digital jukeboxes in bars around New York. Basically he suggests that the infinite choice of music available on digital jukeboxes damages the sense of community which exists where a CD-based jukebox has a selection of music that follows a particular theme. In other words, that too much personalization removes the possibility of ‘community’. Sarah Gilbert on takes up this theme, asking:

If you’re going to subscribe to Fry’s theory, that with mass customization and digitization comes loss in community … you’ll have to agree that digital music — and, most specifically, iTunes — is killing community. If people can get any song they like, why should they listen to their friend’s music, or (horrors) listen to the music selected by a group of barflys? By allowing people to have whatever they want, are we destroying that ability to get along?

I don’t particularly agree with the sentiments being put forward here, but it would suggest that there is a certain amount of anti-personalization sentiment out there. Perhaps the providers of products and services that can be personalized need to offer windows to their other non-personalized offerings, as a way of ‘balancing’ impressions that they are encouraging excessive self-centredness among customers.

But one well-known media company did this, and it still ran into criticism for it.

The New York Times newspaper recently launched an online personalized edition, where readers can personalized the type of content that they wish to read, and they will then get recommendations on other content that NY Times editors believe will be of interest to them.

David S. Hirschman of Editor and Publisher wrote about the NY Times personalization a few weeks ago. In The Mixed Blessing of Personalized News, he says that:

“It’s saying that readers can decide for themselves what they want to see first in the paper, and lets them bury stories they presume they would not find interesting.

But by then turning around and offering the “informed editorial judgment” of writers and editors as a “guide,” the Times is subtly trying to take back some of the editorial decision-making power it has ceded (even if the reporters are only providing “guidance”).

So it appears that the only way for businesses to deal with suggestions that they are ‘controlling’ customer preferences is to provide an ‘exit strategy’ for the consumer from the personalization route – in the NY Times case, to have a fixed window to non-personalized headlines on the user’s personalized page.

Or is all this suspicion of personalization just the opinion of a few media commentators? It is comment, but the thing is that opinion writers do influence opinion. The issue for businesses is to be able to offer personalization without creating the impression that they are railroading the customer into a ‘siding of personalization’, where their initial choices can be used to confine their options in the future. The best way of doing this is to always make it easy for the customer to access the full range of offerings when they return to do business (whether it is to buy a t-shirt or read the news), and not try to assume that they only want the same as the last time.

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