An alternative take on the benefits of increasingly targeted user engagement

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Person on phone

By Dr David Houghton, Lecturer in Marketing at Birmingham Business School

A little while back I posted a blog on what I believe is the more important issue around selfie posting: that we need to look beyond the selfie and to the self. I wanted to write a bit more on the concern that we might be constrained by the technology we initially hoped would broaden our horizons.

Let’s face it, too many of us are attached to our smartphones and tablets, looking for responses to our latest ‘instaface’ post, or to see what others are doing. We’re worried about the multiple audiences we’re posting to, but simultaneously ignoring them and posting anyway. We’re looking for validation about our latest omelette creation, hoping to get more than 100 likes for having achieved a simple day-to-day task. We’re immersed, even when we’re supposed to be doing other things, like walking, talking with people who are right next to us, or even just watching the telly. We are ignoring the few moments we are sharing physically with the very company with whom we’ve struggled to align diaries in order to meet at the same location, at the same time, for the same purpose.

As a researcher who looks into behaviour and technology across various platforms and topics, I’d be a hypocrite if I said I don’t partake in some of these technologies and behaviours myself. I also need to stop my tainted irony, get down off my high horse and climb down from my ivory tower (although quite how I got a horse up there I’ll leave to your imagination); because I’m pretty sure humans have been doing this for years. We talk to the same friends, family and colleagues. We read the same newspaper with quality journalism [probably], and we watch the same news channel because “we like the presenter on that one”.

Yet, there are a few broader things to consider, and situations from where I hope we can take a small step back occasionally and learn from.

For example, all this technology is great! It is great for retailers, who get people looking at things that they are more likely to buy. Great for consumers, as we get more of the things we might want (even if we didn’t know we wanted them). Great for social media connections and general entertainment, as we get more of the sort of posts that we tend to click on, from the same sources we like looking at, about the same things we always see.

The likes of our favourite fast-delivering, online retailers are doing us a favour. They’re taking what we look at online, what we search for on their site and what we’ve previously purchased to give us increasingly sophisticated options for “things we may also want to waste money on”, delivered tonight if we’re quick enough to click buy.

Our preferred selfie sharing platforms show us adverts based on our recent browsing, recommend friends based on our collective network connections, and present us with the mind-numbingly tedious posts our so-called nearest and dearest are posting. Continuously, we receive information based on these and similar parameters so we see “more of what we like”.

The issue I have, though, is more one of algorithm refinement. We can’t ignore the benefits of what using these algorithms might bring, but we can’t ignore everything else in the world.

With the increasingly sophisticated modelling by retailers, social media platforms and government bodies, we see greater amplification of narrowness (or should that be the attenuation of broadness?). We miss others’ political opinions that might help us understand why they voted for [enter ridiculous politician here]; opinions that we might be able to better serve or comprehend if we just started to look for them. We miss other products on real and virtual shelves that may spark ideas about a different product purchase route to go down. We miss the company of the people we’re with, in favour of company that’s at a distance. We miss the opportunity to develop ourselves, from the trivial to the socially important.

In the words of the green-cross code, it’s time to stop, look and listen all around.

I should note the irony, here, that my view is of course one perspective and that I should also write a blog about doing the complete opposite. In reality, though, there’s no point because you won’t have seen this post unless you already wanted to see it.

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