// Taming the torrent: personalization and the future of news //
Until quite recently it was common for us to discover what was happening in the world by buying a daily newspaper or to by tuning into news bulletins on our radios or televisions. News organizations could rely on us to make the ‘repeat purchase’ of our daily paper or patiently wait for the news to be transmitted to us at fixed times of the day. In this sense news was a predictable product and we willingly became loyal followers of certain titles or broadcast channels. Today, as the supply of news comes to us from an increasingly wide variety of providers and in more and more ways, news organizations are having to work harder to secure our loyalty and are using new techniques to adapt their output to meet our desire for news. Academic researchers have recently become interested in how this is being done and what its implications might be.
One way for news organizations to capture the steadily fragmenting news audience is to invite us to select the types of news we receive and by doing so make the news a tailored product – to create, in other words, ‘personalized news’. The BBC is one of the latest national news organizations to offer this sort of service – it added an online personalized news function to its website in January this year (‘BBC My News’). But many believe that this signals the beginning of a process that will make news organizations and our loyalty to them less and less important in the future as our online expectations evolve.
The idea of personalized news has a long history. It was expressed well in Nicholas Negroponte’s book ‘Being Digital’, published more than 20 years ago, in which he proposed the creation of something called the ‘Daily Me’ – a digital newspaper tailored by ourselves to cater for our unique interests and needs. Inspired initially by the realisation that the internet would bring with it a potentially overwhelming flow of news and information, Negroponte believed personalized filtering systems would be essential to help prevent information overload.
Personalization is now very much a reality. It can take different forms. You can either express your own preferences – you select from a menu of news topic categories on a news website and can opt to receive alerts about them and see only stories on these topics when you visit the news site – or your preferences can be determined ‘implicitly’ by the system itself. This involves either the use of personal information collected when you register with a news website or it can involve the use of data that the news site accumulates from your online behaviour – the pages you have visited or the stories you have read. This kind of personalization can also involve what is known as ‘collaborative filtering’ where news items are selected by website algorithms and then presented to us as recommendations. Most news websites now use these – we are probably all familiar with the ‘most read’, ‘most popular’, etc., lists of news items that appear on our screens. Some news sites also send news items our way because of recommendations made by members of our social networks – that is, the recommendations come from outside our use of a given news website (Facebook, for example, links to news websites in this way).
Academic research on personalization has discovered that we are more likely to be passive than active personalizers of news. It turns out that we are not very good at creating the ‘Daily Me’ for ourselves. Although we seem to like having the option to choose, in most cases news organizations are personalizing the news for us. Most of us who use online news websites now – whether we realise it or not – are allowing news organizations to filter the content we receive. In fact there has been a marked increase in news websites’ use of this form of passive personalization in the past few years. One of the main reasons for this is that it helps news providers to strengthen their connections with us – we go back to news sites that deliver the sort of news we want in the way we like it (vital in the face of declining readership), but passive personalization has of course also been supported enthusiastically by the advertising industry who are always keen to collect data about the things we are interested in. The process gives advertisers detailed information about us and our behaviour which helps them identify specific markets to target. Website owners are using ever more sophisticated algorithms to collect this ‘consumer profiling’ data. As the US media academic Joseph Turrow has said recently: advertising is more and more ‘based on data we don’t know they are collecting and individualized profiles we don’t know we have’.
The rise of news personalization has raised a number of other concerns too. Journalists, for example, are generally rather gloomy about it because they believe it represents a challenge to their traditional role. It has always been one of the key parts of the journalist’s job to tame the flow of information about the world by giving us accounts of only the most important or most interesting events of the day. Now the power to select what is important or interesting in the news seems to be shifting away from them.
Others have more far-reaching concerns. The American legal academic Cass Sunstein has argued that personalization prevents people from being exposed to the wide diversity of news topics they would have been exposed to in the pre-internet era. This is often called the ‘loss of serendipity’ in news consumption. Personalization means that fewer events and happenings will become ‘common knowledge’ and, because it lets us filter out news on topics and issues that we are not interested in or don’t care about, personalization will make it less likely that we will encounter views that compete with our own. It may even mean that our political views will become entrenched more deeply because we can more easily avoid and become isolated from contrasting or contradictory political arguments and points of view. And as the more traditional forms of news dissemination such as newspapers wither away and the space for news in radio and TV schedules gets crowded out by more commercially-oriented programming, those without access to the digital universe will become even more disconnected from the important happenings of the world.
In pursuit of these concerns academic attention is now turning to the work of computer engineers who are developing systems to give us an ever more personalized and individualized internet experience. One optimistic view is these systems may in fact compensate for the narrowing effect of personalization by using the information they collect about us to create a sort of ‘synthetic serendipity’ into our online encounters with news. Google is at the forefront of these developments and is working on systems that build everything it knows about us into the process of selecting and delivering news in a much more dynamic fashion. The data Google collects on our search patterns, semantic and ‘tone’ analyses of the content of our emails, our blog posts, the news topics we spend most time on, the TV programmes we watch, the people we have meetings with which show up in our calendars, our travel schedules and journey times, the GPS data collected from our phones that records where we are and where we go, and the pattern of our calls (who calls us and who we call, how frequently and for how long), are all being gathered together continuously to create more and more detailed profiles of the kind of people we are and the kinds of things we do. This data is helping Google to develop what is known as ‘predictive search’. The ‘Google Now’ feature of the Google search service uses our data to predict what we want to know to save us the trouble of searching for it. A good example is travel news. Because your phone ‘knows’ your route to work – and the mode of transport you most often use – Google will automatically give you up-to-date information about your route home (traffic news, alternative routes) at around the time you usually finish work. Undoubtedly more valuable to us than the advertisements that follow us when we move from site to site (rather crudely ‘predicting’ our interest in buying a specific product) Google aims to predict the kind of useful information you need, and deliver it to you when you need it.
Integrated with Google Now but running alongside it, Google has for several years been working on a news service that will gather the data it needs so it can offer us news stories that are related to other information that we have searched for, received and spent time with in the past. The aim is to compare all of our activity against the activity of millions of others to build up the data in our profiles in such detail that our computer, smartphone or tablet will be able to predict the news that we need or are likely to be interested in at any given moment. While this cannot simulate the experience of leafing through and scanning the pages of our daily newspaper and pausing when something catches our eye, it will present us with a flow of news that is more likely to be of interest and use to us than the unfiltered torrent of news that now comes our way.
So is this the future of news? There are of course fears about Google because of the increasing quantities of information it collects and stores about us that can be sold to advertisers. Google is a near-monopoly media company that we have come to treat rather as we would a public utility yet it has none of the accountability of such organizations. It has the potential to play the role of supreme gatekeeper in filtering the information we receive when we use its tools so there are extremely good grounds for caution. And Silicon Valley remains silent about the very profound problem of digital exclusion: not everyone has the means to benefit from the new tools that are being offered to us.
Research will need to continue to monitor these developments carefully as news and the ways we receive it continue to evolve. We may no longer actively search for news as we did when we bought our daily newspaper or tuned into our radio or television sets – our digital devices may soon be able to tell us what we need to know before we realise we need to know it.
Roger Dickinson (PhD) is a sociologist specializing in the study of the media and communication. He is currently Reader in Media and Communication at the University of Leicester, United Kingdom. His research has most recently focussed on journalism and the work of journalists with special reference to the use of digital technologies and social media in the production of news.
Manuel Cabrera was born in Mexico City in 1986. He studied graphic design at the Universidad Iberoamericana. He currently works as a graphic designer and illustrator while he pursues a degree in architecture.
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