The Power, and Peril, of Personalization

I never thought twice about it.

Of course it’s awesome that Amazon tells you what else you may want to purchase based on what you’ve just added to your cart.

Or that Netflix will recommend a movie based on your past viewing experiences.

Or that grocery stores print out coupons that are related to the items you just bought.

Such technologies are a form of personalization, tailoring suggestions and offers for you as a result of your behavior.

It always seemed like a win-win. The technologies got to know who I am and created custom recommendations, and the better and better they get at doing so, the more likely it is that I will end up purchasing something as a direct result of such recommendations. I’m happy, the store’s happy.

But an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal opened my eyes to the downside of all this personalization.

It takes away the beauty of serendipity – unplanned fortunate discoveries.

The author of the WSJ article, Peter Funt of Candid Camera, tells of his experience visiting the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, N.Y. The museum uses interactive devices to present exhibits and artifacts pertaining to comedy through the ages. Each visitor receives a radio frequency identification wristband programmed according to his preferences among comedians, TV shows, and movies. Signals from the band trigger displays specifically tailored to those interests. Funt notes that while the tech is exciting, its core use at the center might prove antithetical to broadening awareness about comedy’s diverse performers and styles.

He also tells of another museum, this one devoted to espionage. Spyscape opened earlier this year in Manhattan, and like the Comedy Center, it uses RFID wristbands to link visitors’ experiences to their interests.

The Tronvig Group, a New York City marketing firm that advises museums, believes that giving patrons more of what they want is the right thing to do. “No amount of marketing is going to make something interesting to them, if they are not actually interested in it,” declares a post on its blog.

Funt counters with a quote from Nicholas Thomas’s 2016 book, “The Return of Curiosity.” Thomas writes that museums are rewarding for their “unexpected discoveries of pieces that may be minor in art-historical terms or otherwise supposedly of secondary interest but that appeal to you nevertheless, that enable you to know something new or that take you somewhere you have not previously been.”

Funt also shares his and his wife’s dining habits: He tends to order the same thing all the time at restaurants, whereas his wife samples new dishes. “I know what I like,” he explains, to which his wife invariably replies: “Maybe if you tried something new, you’d find you enjoy it.”

I have to admit I’m more like Funt. I too, tend to order the same thing when I go to a restaurant. Once I find something I really like, I like to relive that experience. Ordering something different might deny me that opportunity.

But I now also see the beauty in trying something different.

So I guess it’s time to prepare myself for Bizarro World, doing the opposite of everything I usually do and hoping it will lead to some unexpected, yet pleasant discoveries.

But even if that means watching The Real Housewives of New York City, I’m pretty sure I won’t be referring to it as an “unplanned fortunate discovery”.

*photo found at 2018 is Bizarro World Summed Up in One Picture