This is the Modem World: Please don't personalize me. I know who I am

Joshua Fruhlinger
J. Fruhlinger|01.17.13

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This is the Modem World: Please don't personalize me. I know who I am

Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

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Here's the thing: I know who I am. I don't need Facebook or Google or Microsoft or Apple or anyone else to collect data and tell me what I'm interested in. I'm pretty sure I know what I like and don't like. I'm also pretty sure I know my friends, and if I am looking for a recommendation on something, I'll hit particular ones up based on what I know of who knows what. Know what I'm saying?

This week Facebook announced its new search technology that a lot of us knew was coming. The premise is, if I may minimize, that what my friends like is probably good for me. I can see how scientists may think that this is plausible, but in reality, this can't be further from reality.

Here's an example.

I love my wife more than anything. More than rain on a Sunday afternoon with a good book, more than the first bite of a T-bone steak at Les Halles. She's perfect. She's everything to me.

She loves pink. I hate pink. But I still love her, and love her in pink. According to a socially relevant search engine, I should also love pink. But I do not, and will not ever wear pink. That's just me. She's cool with that, and so am I. Kismet.

But the scientists, digital marketers and bet-placers of today are betting on the notion that we are guided by what our friends are doing. This is certainly true on a day-to-day basis -- we look to our friends for guidance all the time -- but it's true in a qualitative manner, and when we try to quantify the qualitative, math fails. Go ahead; tell me how much your love of burgers -- or pink -- is worth. I'll bet you can't.

I get it. Maybe my best friend and I are best friends because we share common interests. We both think Terry Gilliam's Brazil is a killer movie, so when he mentions on Facebook that he loved Prometheus, when I search for "movies my friends like," it should weigh that one pretty heavily. But here's the thing -- I already asked him, and the chances that I'm going to be so desperate for a social recommendation that I'll turn to my social networks for something to do is, at least in my case, slim to none.

No, in fact, I'll turn to the quantitative favorites like Google, because then I can insert my own biases and opinions based on the opinions of those I don't know. The funny thing is that I find the opinion of someone I don't know more telling than my best friend's, because, well, my best friend is pretty predictable, and that's exactly why he's my best friend. And that's not something I need a computer to tell me.

A few years ago, when I was given the task of coming up with ways to get readers to read more stuff on a particular website -- let's call it Engadget -- a bunch of promising technologies were presented that looked at what a reader was reading and suggested similar items. It was all too obvious. So obvious, in fact, that I felt the need to buck the notion.

I wondered, "When someone orders a burger, do they want another burger, or do they want a side of fries?"

My point is this: Sometimes we want to discover things our friends don't know about. That's what makes friendship interesting: we bring new things to the table, and if all we do is like exactly what our friends like, we'll all end up bored out of our minds.

Maybe I'm missing the point -- maybe the idea is to create bonds based on suggestions that new friends like, thereby strengthening our bonds, but if that's true, that should be clarified.

Until then, I'll be over here on the old-school search engines. Call me antisocial. Go ahead. I dare you.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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