Prompted by the callous statement from OKCupid’s data scientist (“Guess what, everybody: If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work”), I started thinking about preemptive personalization, when sites like Facebook and Google customize your results without your input. Obviously, if you are not included in the customization process, it’s hard to view the results of that process as being truly tailored to you. It’s ascribed, but users are supposed to believe they elected it.
But that is part of the ideological mission of Big Data, to get us to accept black-box algorithmic filtering as reflecting what would have chosen to see, had we been given the choice. In other words, the common understanding of “personalization” has been stretched to leave out the will of the actual person involved.
As I started to suggest in those tweets above, I think preemptive personalization is seductive only because of the pressure we experience to make our identities unique — to win the game of having a self by being “more original” than other people. That’s an impossible, nonsensical goal for self-actualization: self-knowledge probably involves coming to terms with how generic our wants and needs and thoughts are, and how dependent they are on the social groups within which we come to know ourselves, as opposed to some procedure of uncovering their pure idiosyncrasy. The idea that self-becoming or self-knowledge is something we’d want to make more “convenient” would seem counterproductive. The effort to be a self is its own end.
But social media trap us in a tautological loop, in which we express ourselves to be ourselves to express ourselves, trying to claim better attention shares from the people we are ostensibly “connecting” with. Once we are trying to “win” the game of selfhood on the scoreboard of attention, any pretense of expressing an “inner truth” (which probably doesn’t exist anyway) about ourselves becomes lost in the rush to churn out and absorb content. When we start measure the self, concretely, in quantified attention rather than in terms of the nebulous concept of “effort,” it begins to make sense to accept algorithmic personalization, which reports the self to us as something we can consume. The algorithm takes the data and spits out a statistically unique self for us, that lets us consume our uniqueness as as a kind of one-of-a-kind delicacy. It masks from us the way our direct relations with other people shape who are, preserving the fantasy we are sui generis. It protects us from the work of recognizing and respecting the ways our actions have consequences for other people at very fundamental levels of their being.
The point of “being unique” has broadened; it is a consumer pleasure as well as a productive achievement. So all at once, “uniqueness” (1) motivates content production for social-media platforms, (2) excuses intensified surveillance, and (3) allows filter bubbles to be imposed as a kind of flattery (which ultimately isolates us and prevents self-knowledge, of knowledge of our social relations). Uniqueness serves as a mechanism of control as much as an apparent expression of the freedom one has to be distinct.
Preemptive personalization is an overt example of Althusserian “interpellation”: The sites call out to us with a sense of knowing who we are, and we accept that as genuine recognition, not a method of positing who we are supposed to be. We become the simulacrum. "That’s how websites work.“