‘What you really, really want’: media and entertainment companies in the age of the second paradigm shift


2 August 2017, Sophia Woodley

Ilya Pavlov 87438

The tools created by the digital age are now enabling a second paradigm shift – to a world where ordinary people are able to control their personal data and gain value from it themselves. In a previous post I examined the implications for arts organisations. In this post I will discuss the impact of this paradigm shift on media and entertainment companies.

‘Big data’ has already had a big impact on some media companies. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, for instance, are impossible to imagine without the taste profiling that enables them to say ‘you enjoyed Star Trek; you might enjoy Firefly as well.’ In offering recommendations they have widened the experiences – and perhaps the taste – of many readers and viewers.

But an individual’s personal taste is just that – personal. Many of us will have found themselves receiving recommendations so off-base that they seemed like an affront, or so predictable that they seemed condescending. Or, perhaps worse, had the unsettling experience of five seconds of browsing on one website transforming into days of targeted adverts that followed them around the internet. Do we really want big corporations, or even public service organisations, to know what we like?

(Interestingly, the BBC is soon to require you to log in to use iPlayer. The stated reason is to make its offerings “more relevant and personal to you” – but although you can choose to opt out of personalised marketing and recommendations, you can’t opt out of giving them your basic personal details.)

Add to this the prospect of optimised clickbait content spreading from Buzzfeed and similar platforms to colonise other parts of the media and entertainment sectors, and you have the threat of a future where being given exactly ‘what you really, really want,’ all of the time, seems more like a nightmare than a dream. (Much like the thought of listening to that Spice Girls track on repeat.)

So how can media and entertainment companies take advantage of the second big paradigm shift in data to give customers, users and audiences what they really want, without conjuring up the spectre of Big Brother?

The answer may be in the coming wave of Personal Information Management Services.

We can now envision a future in which a consumer’s taste is aggregated centrally across multiple entertainment and media platforms, controlled not by companies but by the consumer themselves. They would be able to choose explicitly to share some or all of this data with providers in order to get personalised content or recommendations, whether it was which movie to watch next on Netflix or which Proms concert they might enjoy. If the recommendations were no good, then they could choose to withdraw access again – or, even more interestingly, dig into the reasons that something was recommended to them.

This is an idea that Golant Media Ventures started to consider while we were working on taste profiling as part of the FAROE project. We realised that if you provide a pertinent personalised recommendation but don’t say why you offered it, people can get spooked. As your recommendations get better, they can actually be threatening to users because of how much knowledge they reveal. One way of dealing with this issue is by offering users a ‘semantic breadcrumb trail’ telling them exactly why something was recommended to them.

This opens up the further possibility of letting the user actually control what data is used about them, and how. A user could adjust the weight of their recorded preferences in driving further recommendations – or choose to say, for example, “I want you to forget that ever I watched America’s Next Top Model.”

As well as being ethically sound, this would go a long way to ensuring that recommendation algorithms respect the new rights on profiling and automated decision-making that have a legal or ‘significant’ effect granted by the General Data Protection Regulation – coming into force across the European Union in May 2018 . It also has the potential to improve recommendations and the user experience simultaneously.

The result? A clear – and negotiated – value exchange between media company and consumer. And hopefully the chance to get the entertainment that you really, actually want.

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