The shoes that Julie Matlin recently saw on Zappos.com were kind of cute, or so she thought. But Ms. Matlin wasn't ready to buy and left the site. Then the shoes started to follow her everywhere she went online. An ad for those very shoes showed up on the blog TechCrunch. It popped up again on several other blogs and on Twitpic. It was as if Zappos had unleashed a persistent salesman who wouldn't take no for an answer. "For days or weeks, every site I went to seemed to be showing me ads for those shoes," said Ms. Matlin, a mother of two from Montreal. "It is a pretty clever marketing tool. But it's a little creepy, especially if you don't know what's going on." People have grown accustomed to being tracked online and shown ads for categories of products they have shown interest in, be it tennis or bank loans.Ms. Matlin saw the same pair of shoes wherever she went. However, if advertising is information, as Ogilvy (1985) noted, then Ms. Matlin might have benefited from the exposure to different kinds of ads (with different contents). Such exposure might have taught her things about the world and about herself of which she was unaware. It may be said, then, that one especially important unintended consequence of targeting and personalization is that by exposing the user to variations of the same, the chances of discovery by serendipity decrease considerably. The chance encounter of an author unheard of is unlikely in a world customized to fit the patterns of past behavior. A similar problem has been noted by Sunstein (2007) in the context of political behavior, and much earlier, by communication scholars (e.g., Beniger 1987, Rucinski 1992). Sunstein (2007) noted that whenever people voiced their ideas at the town square everyone was necessarily exposed to arguments of different sides on a controversy. However, in a world in which people are exposed to ideas mainly through reading specialist blogs or newspapers online, they only read things with which they already agree. The result is, sadly, that people are not able to communicate effectively anymore. Nor do they learn to understand and respect different ideas, which in turn means that they do not refine their ideas nor discard them because they learned something new from someone having a different view. The world of ideas is becoming compartmentalized, with every compartment tightly sealed to imports from the others. It interesting that recommendation systems have the same problem, one which has attracted the attention of some scholars. Recommendation systems have focused almost exclusively on providing accurate recommendations, to the exclusion of novelty. Nonetheless, a good recommendation system should achieve not only accuracy in its recommendations, but also novelty and serendipity (Resnick and Varian 1997, Adomavicius and Tuzhilin 2005, McNee, Riedl, and Konstan 2006). Fleder, Hosanagar, and Buja (2010) put the problem well: "Personalizing websites means that we may no longer see the same newspaper articles, television shows, or books as our peers... [R]ecommender systems will create fragmentation, causing users to have less and less in common with one another." In what follows, I briefly discuss the role of serendipity both in science and in shopping, and in the next part of this two-part article I review some of the existing approaches to increasing the chances of discovery by serendipity (the review will focus on recommendation systems, in part because the literature on this topic has began to address the fact that these systems often recommend "more of the same" and hence lack diversity).
Unintended Consequences of Targeting: Less Information, Less Serendipity - Part I
Advertisers often assume that targeting and personalization are useful - not only for themselves - but also for the buyer. When people browse through a magazine or catalog they see much that is not necessarily relevant; the reason why is obvious: the magazine aims its ads to a more or less broad audience, which means that any particular person is likely to see ads in which he has little interest. Online advertising, in contrast, is not subject to the same constraint: advertisers are able to target a small section of the population, and even personalize ads to a particular user. A person buying books about a particular topic will see recommendations for books on similar topics, and will see ads for related products. So, instead of getting many irrelevant ads, the person only sees ads that are closely related to his own shopping habits. There is a growing interest in personalizing online experience, an indication of which is the following mission statement from The Journal of Personalization Research, a 10 year-old online publication dedicated to the study of personalization. The journal aims at disseminating "novel original research on interactive computer systems that can be adapted or adapt themselves to their current users." According to a recent New York Times column, the reason why personalized marketing is "being hailed as the latest breakthrough" is that it "tries to show consumers the right ad at the right time" (Helft and Vega 2010). From the standpoint of the advertiser, all this is indeed wonderful. Yet, it is worth asking whether, in addition to the potential benefits of such effort, there are reasons for concern. In this article, I discuss one such reason. One general consequence of these practices is that they reduce the information-content to which the buyer is exposed. He sees only things which his browsing habits justify, and hence things that are likely to be similar to the ones he (or people with similar habits) saw in the past. In other words, there is less variation in the information content the buyer is exposed to, he ends up getting the same information again and again. He is exposed to a narrow world, the world relevant only to him, as it were. The aforementioned New York Times column by Helft and Vega illustrates the point well. It begins as follows:Submitted by Isaac Waisberg on December 22, 2010.
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