Last month, journalist Kyle Chayka wrote an article for The Verge in which he coined the term ‘Airspace’ to describe the “coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live/work spaces” that share a certain set of hallmarks (raw wood tables, exposed brick, Edison bulbs etc). Chakra’s theory is that this faux-artisanal aesthetic has spread thanks to digital platforms such as Foursquare and AirBnB, which are creating “a harmonization of tastes.”
But this trend for homogeneity is not confined to the physical world; our digital spaces are also becoming increasingly bland and it’s thanks, ironically, to our ongoing mission for personalization.
We have all heard about hypertargeting and the untold opportunities that await those who can uncover the elusive “Segment of One.” But it seems that in the hunt for this holy grail we have instead crafted an unnerving facsimile of what we think the personalized web should look like: a sludge-brown mix of slightly off recommendations and unearned intimacy.
Ever had a salesperson use your first name a few too many times in a crude attempt to win you over? Well that same feeling is creeping into our apps and our emails, caused by brands spraying a sheen of ‘personalization’ on to their communications in order to cover up the gaps left by too-big data and cumbersome algorithms.
In our attempt to engage everyone individually we are unwittingly creating a beige web, a homogenous echo chamber that is aesthetically and tonally normalized. And so we have to ask ourselves the question: when did personalization become so important? Who asked us for an individual experience? When did this become our mission?
Ironically, you could argue that it was born out of a genuine desire to create standout experiences and services. To differentiate. To genuinely engage and interact.
All good intentions (and undoubtedly powerful if you can pull them off – I’m thinking about AirBnB’s subtle preference matching, or the 1.4 million individual logos TH_NK created for Atom Bank), but those intentions are largely powerless in the face of the unpredictability of human behavior and the relatively blunt instruments at our disposal. Right now we are Neanderthals attempting to decorate our caves after seeing a nice picture of the Sistine Chapel on Pinterest.
It’s time to stop trying to hold a wonky carnival mirror up to every member of our audience and instead put the power back into their hands by designing services and products that they can relate to and learn to love. To move away from presenting bespoke elements that only induce choice paralysis and instead aim to develop loyalty and trust through consistency. To stop building echo chambers and instead create recognizable personalities and distinct voices for people to discover and learn to love. And, instead of trying to force every type of person through a personalized experience, we should tap into the power of audiences and group effort, and empower users to create the types of experiences that can only be produced collectively.
Personalization can undoubtedly be a powerful tool in the right circumstances and in the right hands, but it is not a cure-all that can be magicked at a moment’s notice. It’s a scalpel, and by wielding it like a sword we are in danger of shaving off the edges of the web and turning something beautiful, exciting, and fun into something distinctly beige.
Rob Hinchliffe is Content and Community Director at TH_NK.