Personalised media flows

One of the most famous media scholars of our era, Raymond Williams, came up with the concept of ‘flow’ in the mid 70′s to describe the sequence of content on broadcast television (shows, trailers, advertisments, previews, movies, whatever else the station programmer throws in). Williams thought that the sequence should be understood as a composite, a distinct emotional and psychological experience, a ‘single irresponsible flow of images and feelings’ (Williams 2003, p.92). ‘Flow’ has since become one of the most powerful critical concepts in film and television studies. I think the idea is still useful to us, but that we have entered an era of content personalization; there is not one, but literally millions of media flows, assembled or aggregated for each individual. Increasingly, digital content is produced on demand based on your current location; it is shaped by your social network and what they are recommending; it is predicted based on your personal Google search history or what you’ve been writing about in your webmail account. This personalized flow is substantially different from the early web, where content did not change based on the user’s purchasing history or social network; personalization was confined to choosing which links to follow or what to download.I think we need a term to describe the fact that we are all consuming different content, and that this content is increasingly being assembled and delivered to us based on our personal preferences/browsing history/social network.

Personalisation and Google’s new browser (‘Chrome’)

The Age published an article today on Google’s new browser Chrome. Consumer Watchdog expressed some concerns over this new browser back in October, and sent a letter to Google’s founders.

Chrome is all about personalisation of course; from the homepage itself (which includes information such as your most frequently visited sites) to the way the browser can predict possible URLs you may wish to visit. I don’t see why this comes as such a surprise; Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt has expressed Google’s long-term plan before: personalisation. He told the Financial Times in 2007, ‘We are very early in the total information we have within Google. The algorithms will get better and we will get better at personalisation”.

One of the complaints in the Consumer Watchdog letter about Chrome

…surrounds Chrome’s navigation bar, which can be used to enter a website address or a search query. The group points out that as users type in the navigation bar, Chrome relays their keystrokes to Google even before they click “Enter” to finalise the command. “The company is literally having this unnoticed conversation with itself about you and your information,” Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court said (Google’s Browser Labelled a Digital Trojan Horse, 04/08)

Google Chrome seems to have anticipated the hysteria that would ensue over privacy, because it offers a “privacy mode” where you can apparently search the web without data being siphoned off and sent back to Google all the time.

Mobile media – what makes it distinct?

What is it that makes mobile devices distinct from computers as a medium? Obviously there is a convergence of the two in the form of smartphones, but there is also a divergence: in the way that people use the devices, and also in the way that content is delivered. People use mobiles on the move: when they access web content they are after information ‘snacks’ – little pieces to consume on the train, at the bustop, in a boring meeting. Nobody reads a feature article on a mobile phone, and we don’t seem interested in watching TV either, as Robert Andrews observes on moconews. But I think there is another, deeper difference: it is much easier to personalise content on a mobile device. In fact I think this is the key difference between mobile and other mediums at present. Mobiles enable us to deliver content that is relevant to people based on where they are geographically, what they have been interested in previously, and what their friends may be doing. I see a future where content is entirely personalised on mobile devices, and not just advertising, as Paz Saavendra suggests in her article on mobile advertising and personalisation. The benefits of customising data extend far beyond advertising. If you only have two minutes on the bus to go online and grab some info about the place you are heading for, then the more customised and ‘smart’ the content delivered to you, the less effort is required on your part. What makes mobile media distinct? I think it has a lot to do with the potential for customisation, particularly to location.

The politics of aggregation

I’ve been trying to get some critical purchase on personalisation for some time now. Essentially, I think the subject needs more attention. Cass Sunstein has written extensively on it, and some of his criticisms are valid on a commonsense level – but they are not particularly useful if we wish to develop a critical culture in relation to personalized media. Sunstein is mourning the death of the Fourth Estate, the passing of traditional news media platforms. His books and articles read like a eulogy for a bygone era, an era where people had a common news platform. I think a critical culture would begin by acknowledging that aggregation is a form of production in the same sense as editing a newspaper or a programming a radio show, and that it consequently involves selectivity – in other words, a politics. It’s just that aggregation is usually done by a software agent, not a human being – so we forget this crucial step of selection and assembly. When you visit a personalized news portal, a software aggregator has decided in advance which articles matter and which donít – this is precisely why it is convenient.

The term ‘personalisation’ has been used to describe all manner of things from downloading a wallpaper to customizing your cellphone. I’m going to define what I mean, and distinguish it from ‘customisation’. True personalisation is when digital content has been aggregated for you, based on who you are, where you are, or what you are interested in at the time. In other words, it is different for every single individual; pieces of content have been selected and assembled for you, and preferably delivered to your device. This also means that aggregation is a key first step in personalisation – so if we are to understand the cultural effects of personalisation I think we also need to understand aggregation.