BISSEX: Getting Personal

Web search sites have grown fat promising fast, precise answers to individual questions. Most regular Net users rely on them every day. In fact, they are consistently the most heavily visited and most profitable of all websites. But they aren't enough.One problem with search sites is that they have no way to give us information before we explicitly ask for it, and are not designed to notice what kinds of information we end up looking for repeatedly.Enter the latest Web trend: personalization. Sites that remember what you like, where you live, and other demographic tidbits, using this information to tailor themselves to suit you.Like many wonderful "new" marketing ideas, this was actually invented a long time ago by the technical folks. In fact, some of the most interesting services on the Net in the days before the Web were personalized information services. They were delivered via e-mail. For example, I had one that sent me the contents of every discussion group posting that mentioned my home town.But e-mail, despite efforts by the browser manufacturers to ruin it by making it a delivery vehicle for miniature Web pages, still bores the marketing department. E-mail is useful as a means of driving Web traffic, end of story. Web traffic is the marketer's holy grail, because traffic is what sells ads, and ads are what makes money, and, well, money is why you study marketing in the first place. So in order for personalization to be big, it has to be big on the Web. Which, suddenly, it is.The trade magazines were abuzz last week over the Excite search site's new personalized (or is it personalizable?) main page, and with comparisons to similar efforts from competitors Yahoo and Lycos. What does this mean to you and me? Well, when you pull up www.excite.com in your Web browser, you no longer see a generic list of categories and a form for searching. Instead, you see a generic list of customizable news categories, stock prices, and other info-tidbits. Oh, and a tiny form for searching the Web, in case you wanted to do that.This service has been put in your face so that you will tell it your interests -- or even just your zip code? please? -- and thereby get hooked. If Excite gives you a local weather forecast or your favorite team's latest scores every time you visit, the marketing wonks reason, you will develop a "brand identification." You will say, "Hey, that Excite really knows what I like. It really caters to ME and MY interests. I think I will bookmark it and visit it frequently and drive up the hit counts on their banner ads so that the marketing execs can all get raises this quarter."All this is not quite in sync with the visions of a personalized Net that were being offered just a few years ago. Those fantasies were easier, more automatic, less commercial -- more magic. We were supposedly destined to have personalized "agents" or "bots" roaming the infoverse, picking up only those tidbits we were interested in and depositing them at our feet, like dogs that not only bring the morning paper but write it as well.But people don't always know what they want to find. Worse, critics of the agent concept fear that relying on such filters for all our information would freeze our conception of the world. Linguists have long known that the language we use shapes what we perceive; the same might one day be said of the software agents we train.Ultimately, the fact that there is so little personality in the world of personalizability boils down to a single unresolvable tension: the mass market versus the individual. Services like the new Excite don't want to know about interests of yours that are indeed individual. Most web services with personalization options offer the same generic ingredients: weather, syndicated news, stock quotes, sports scores, horoscopes. If you lie off the grid mapped by the prepackaged, massive data feeds they subscribe to, then you may not find your spot in the database so cozy after all.There's no debating that being able to get a concise local weather forecast at any time of day beats the pants off the Weather Channel waiting game. But have Excite, Yahoo, and all the others initiated some kind of Web revolution? No way! (Nothing personal.)***Sites in my SightsTo get personal with these services, you can head to Excite (www.excite.com) or My Yahoo (my.yahoo.com). For something a little dowdier but potentially more useful, try the Create Your Own Newspaper service (www.crayon.net) developed at Bucknell University, which will give you links to news headlines based on whatever criteria you like. Another simple but interesting custom service is Amazon.com's "Eyes" e-mail bulletins (www.amazon.com), which will alert you to the publication of new books from your favorite author or on your favorite subject.What kind of features would a website need for it to suit your personality? Send a letter in care of this publication, drop a line via e-mail (pb@well.com), or visit the Cyberia website (www.well.com/user/pb/cyb).

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