We’re in danger of losing the spontaneity in our lives. Well, at least our digital lives.

Google was built on the back of ‘I’m feeling lucky’, but now we’re slaves to what our social networks and our search engines want to tell us we should be looking at and who we should be connected to. We’re gradually collapsing in on ourselves on the premise that someone somewhere is trying to save us time.

This week Facebook decided to roll out some significant changes, including a removal of our option to switch between all stories and top news. Instead, our news feed has been decided for us, based on a complex algorithm and delivered to us as ‘top stories’. The tool that originally allowed us to filter meaningless news out of lives, and allow us to choose who and what we followed, has now come full circle and is choosing for us. And there’s no off button.

As Mark Zuckerberg indicated this week, the next phase of social media is about engagement rather than volume of users, and with 750 million signed up, there probably isn’t anywhere else for Facebook to go in terms of those numbers. But with that engagement comes a shadowy figure that now stands over us: the once-innocent algorithm.

Google have been developing algorithms for years – it’s the basis for their entire business model – but as Eli Pariser revealed in his TED talk, those algorithms now deliver different search results based on who is doing the search. No longer did we all get the same search feed, but our location, age, sex and previous searching and browsing habits combine to deliver a result tailored just for us.

A few months back, Facebook moved the chat function away from those people ‘online’ to those that Facebook felt you engaged with more frequently. It was no longer about who I wanted to talk to, but who Facebook felt you wanted to talk to. Common sense prevailed and a second layer of chat appeared and ‘more online friends’ appeared. But ‘more online friends’? Talk about creating a second class of friends. Facebook is saying, ‘If you REALLY want to talk to these people, they’re over there in the corner, but really, take it from us, they’re not good Facebookers, so if I were you, I’d ignore them.’

That ‘exclusivity’ has now filtered into the newsfeed: ‘Here are some stories we think you should read. And if you really want to read the rest, we’ll make it a bit awkward for you to find them.’

Many of you might shrug your shoulders and ask, ‘So what?’ It’s only Facebook and Google, and they’re not the be all and end all of marketing. Well, the use of algorithms to communicate to us will eventually evolve to other platforms.

Let’s think about how we anticipate the future will evolve. Digital billboards that can detect who is walking past them. Cars that log us into our iTunes accounts when we start them up. Smartphone apps integrated with artificial intelligence programs anticipating us being late for meetings.

Information will become more and more tailored to us, not just in our Google searches or our Facebook feeds, but through our radios, outdoor advertising, SMS – anything we pass with an enabled smartphone, or where we’re logged in, will broadcast a personalised message to us, in a language we’re familiar with. How long before we can build an AI version of ourselves that will talk directly back to us? Let’s all be honest here: we all wish we were driving Knight Rider’s KITT. And soon we might be. But instead of KITT telling us how many rocket-propelled grenades we have left or warning us that the chasm we’re about to jump is wider than his system was designed to cope with, he’ll be informing us of the 2-for-1 specials on milk at Coles.

The big question isn’t so much about our how we deal with this personalisation, but what we are missing?

I’m a predictable person, but even I love a bit of randomness in my life. I never mention anywhere that I like to cook and I rarely visit food portals of any kind. I’m no master chef and my list of dishes is hardly extensive, but I get handy with a frying pan now and again. How does the algorithm cope with this? Well, it won’t. It doesn’t know anything about my savoury mince because I never take that part of my life online. I love the randomness of my 2,000+ Twitter followers – a snapshot of chaos that I can delve into. No algorithm can deliver me that.

Where does this personalisation end? From marketing to news? I remember when I first arrived in Australia, listening to Brisbane’s Triple M one morning – the morning after Tony Blair had sat down with Gaddafi in Tripoli for the first time. The lead story on Triple M was a fire in a Brisbane city farm where one of the pigs got slightly burnt. The Blair/Gaddafi meeting came second.

The media already dumbs down what it feeds us, but as the use of algorithms and profiling becomes more prevalent could we see a whole generation completely oblivious to world affairs and solely fuelled on X Factor? Let’s remember that it was Zuckerberg that once famously said: “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

For those that leapt on my comment earlier about there being ‘no off button’, yes, I acknowledge that there is an obvious button – the log out – that would stop these numerical tools deciding who we engage with. But it isn’t as simple as that. There might be 750 million users on Facebook, but how many of them are going to reject the service because they don’t like being told what to do? In fact, they’re NOT being told what to do – they’re being fed exactly what they’ve asked for.

And with marketing demanding better and better ROI, the temptation to super-focus our target market on a digital medium using an algorithm grows. We know pinpoint accuracy delivers results; we know shotgun tactics don’t work.

So we reach a dangerous point where we’re caught in a bubble formed by a well-meaning
algorithm, hidden from things we don’t know we want and shielded from friends who don’t engage often enough. The randomness has vanished from our engagement. No-one will ever try to sell me lipstick, nappies or a Happy Meal ever again. And for those reasons, we can’t let the algorithm win.

Simon Dell
BY Simon Dell ON 10 October 2011
Simon is a former full-service agency managing director that ran for seven years and delivered for clients across Australia. He now runs his own digital consultancy SimonDell.com working with Australian businesses helping with online communication and creative strategies. Find Simon on Twitter at @IAmSimonDell, on LinkedIn at IAmSimonDell and Facebook at SwitchYourBusiness.
  • Cat

    Yes, yes and yes!!!

    This is mass-customisation realised – where we, as marketers, can directly reach the eyeballs of *only* the markets we want to reach. Exciting from a marketing perspective … or is it.

    How do we launch new products to the market if our markets are only receiving information that is similar to their existing lives. How do we create disruptions if randomness disappears.

    This notion of being fed exactly what we’ve asked for is scary not because it’s giving us just what we want, but because it’s so insidious. We’re all conscious of it *this week* whilst we get used to the new Facebook … but once that’s part of our unconscious competence then it will become just that – unconscious.

    I’m with you Simon, the ‘off’ button isn’t the answer … because goodness knows it’s now going to be very hard to convince 750M people for example to ‘turn off’ Facebook. And even if they did, with Google+ now using social metrics to feed us results … well, honestly, it doesn’t matter. The information we are receiving is based on our demonstration of preferences, patterns, buying history and what we’ve ‘liked’ or ‘+’d’ …

    Now having said all this it’s not necessarily a ‘bad’ thing … just a new aspect of the online / social phenomena that we need to be aware of … as marketers and consumers.

    Great article Simon …