The Big Bang of News

We have been told (and U-Hopper actually is one of those evangelists) that personalization is the key to success: we need to personalize experiences, products, services, everything that is possibly “personalizable“, in order to create memorable moments and make customers happy. 

This is also what Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google from 2001 to 2011) predicted long time ago:

It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.’

Indeed, standards are nowadays unfashionable! On the contrary, personalization is the highroad for creating and providing clients with an unmissable added value. Still, this cannot be applied to everything, and at U-Hopper we thought that we needed to draw some distinctions between what we can customize and what we should not.

Wait, maybe I am running too fast, let’s take a step back and start over again with a simple exercise. Think about it: if you love adventures and getting your adrenaline pumping in the veins, it will be very unlikely that you click on that pop-up ad offering you a fabulous cruise around the Mediterranean. Most probably you would think “Who cares of the sea view and room service? This year I’m gonna do dog sledding in the Arctic and then skydiving over the Grand Canyon!” (Watch out, dude! 😉 ). 

Again, if you are used to dress like a hipster, the case you buy a long dark-gothic coat, rigorously total black, is quite remote, unless you need it for a Halloween party (or to frighten your future parents-in-law). It is a quite straightforward logic: you are not interested in that coat simply because it does not fit your style and taste. All possible marketing efforts for selling that skirts to you would be useless. Elementary, my dear Watson. 

But. There is always a “but”. What happens when we move away from travel and clothes and start talking about the news? What happens if information reaches our ears and eyes, but only after being skimmed and filtered by someone (or, better said, by something) claiming to act in the best of our interest? What if people who do not share our same beliefs become invisible? Everything they say, everything they write and talk about fall off our radar because it is not in line with our opinions? 
It seems like a scene out of Black Mirror, doesn’t it? Well, I regret telling you the harsh truth, but our present is not that far away from this scenario. Actually, this is something that has been going on for a while and has taken the name of “Filter Bubble”. Pioneer of this rhetorical term is Eli Pariser, CEO of Upworthy, who held a really worth-watching talk during a TED conference a few years ago.

Eli Pariser during a TED conference

As he said at some point in his speech, we are moving “[…] towards a world in which the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see […]. Your Filter Bubble is kind of your own, personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are and what you do; the thing is that you do not decide what gets in and more importantly, you don’t actually see what gets edited out”.

And that’s a big, BIG PROBLEM.

So, here comes the distinction. Algorithms allowing personalization are nowadays vital for some types of businesses (retail companies and online travel agencies, for example), whose consumers want to be treated like individuals and involved in experiences that are highly customized to who they are. Just to give you a rough idea, according to a Salesforce study, “By 2020, 51% of consumers expect that companies will anticipate their needs and make relevant suggestions before they even make contact”. However, the same does not work for the world of news, since such personalization would create a Filter Bubble and the consequent terrible effect (called echo chamber) of ending up surrounded by information that only reflects our own beliefs and opinions without considering alternative ideas and points of view.

This crucial distinction lead us to the conclusion that we – ants, in our tiny world, in our way – need to invest our resources and expertise to change the rules. So, what if we use our technology enabling personalization to burst this Filter Bubble and move against the common practice of showing tailored news content based on interests, opinions and previous clicks? We thought

let’s tailor the content in a manner that is kind of upstream the trend of personalization in strict terms, by showing a wider spectrum of news, balancing relevance and importance, and respecting fundamental principles of ethics and transparency.

Our final aim is to expose users to different contents, not only those in line with their personality and interests but also some others diverse and, why not, challenging and arguable for them.

To translate this mission into a concrete action, we decided to take part in the Content Personalisation Network (CPN) project. This allowed us to create a partnership with a news & media organization from Cyprus, which believes in our idea of leveraging on Tapoi, our customer intelligence solution, to succeed in this challenge. We are now working on developing the algorithms that will ensure that users are occasionally exposed to content that is out of their interest sphere, to overcome the Filter Bubble problem and mitigate the echo chamber effect. Sounds ambitious? Maybe, but we truly believe ambition fuels success! 

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