Social Media Week 2012: Love, Personalization and the Death of Serendipity


Ah, love. Each February 14 we celebrate all things love in remembrance of St. Valentine, a priest who (literally) lost his head over the emotion.  And so, by the powers of the Roman god Cupid; the Greek god Eros; and the consumer goods god Hallmark, we enjoy love found, curse love lost and are hopeful for love to come.

The logo for Love@AOL

Love@AOL - one of the first online dating sites

For me, it also brings back memories of my first “real” job in social media, as a Community Manager at AOL for one of its largest channels, Love@AOL. Launched as a Valentine;s Day special feature in 1996, it did so well that it became a permanent channel, with (at the time) the largest collection of online dating profiles featuring the newest innovation of the day — photos! Simply put, people — even online —  expressed a need to connect, to be social.

Fast forward to yesterday in New York City at the Third Annual Social Media Week New York. In his keynote speech titled ‘Top 2012 Trends in Social,  JWT CEO David Eastman pointed out that four key operators own almost all of the information about you  online. He called them “GAFA” (pronounced “gaffa”), they are:

  1. Google
  2. Amazon
  3. Facebook
  4. Apple

The information GAFA knows about you is considerable and comprehensive, from the music you enjoy to the friends  and family you have to what you’ve searched upon to what you’ve purchased. Of course, what use is all that knowledge to GAFA if they can’t monetize it, and traditional marketing has proven that consumers respond best to offers that are relevant to them.

And that brings us to personalization. As each service serves us more precisely personalized experiences we will see services and products relevant to us based upon our past behavior almost exclusively. It sounds good, but I can’t help but think there’s something inherently wrong happening here. If sites only show me things I’ve already know or care about, what will I be missing? Anne Mack, Director of Trendspotting at JWT, called it “FOMO” – fear of missing out. Extreme personalization may lead to a sequestered view of what’s available on the Web.

And that brings us back to love. Despite the scientific advances in creating algorithms that can analyze an online dating profile and select the best possible like-minded matches, Match.com discovered an interesting fact. Sometimes, what people want in a mate is not what they say they want. While expressing a desire for “someone like me” they react and show interest in someone totally unexpected. It’s that serendipity that fuels love online. And it’s that same siloed personalization that will deprive us of one of the joys of surfing the web, serendipitous discovery. At AOL, one of the most popular keywords each week was Keyword: Random, where every time you clicked on a roulette wheel you landed on a random site on the service. It was popular and it was fun.

Ultimate personalization will deprive us of that joy.

About Ron Casalotti
I am part of that lucky generation that started out when watching TV meant choosing from three networks, three independents and PBS. Now, I work in new media for businesses and organizations - but these thoughts are my own.

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