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Freakishly Personalized

We talk a lot about personalization, and about how personalization improves the user’s experiences, and about how personalization makes the user feel appreciated. Well, I’ve just found out that you can take personalization too far. My dad got a birthday card from the dealer that sold him his car several years ago. This is freaky.

It’s funny because we give dealers all sorts of information about ourselves when we apply for loans, but there’s a level of politeness which assumes that the dealer will a) only use the information for the purpose we intended when we handed over that information, and b) pretend not to know the information when they’re in situations outside of that originally intended information exchange.

I remember learning this lesson when working at a small, independent bookstore for several years. We were expected to watch what our regulars bought so that we could recommend books to them that they would like, but we had to pretend not to know that one regular was reading up on divorce after having spent a year or so buying “fix my relationship” books. And we were certainly never to know why that same person later bought the books on managing finances after divorce…

We also collected phone numbers of the customers who signed up for our charity program (buy a book and 1% of the sale goes to a charity of your choice). But we weren’t supposed to “know” their phone numbers even when, after years of ringing up purchases and entering the phone number which served as their account numbers, we could rattle off the names and numbers of several dozen of our regular customers.

There is decency in asking our patrons to provide us directly with information we use for their accounts, or let them know what information we collect about them. But I think there is even greater decency in “forgetting” even readily remembered personal information when we’re interacting with our patrons in contexts outside of the personalized services we provide.

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  1. Steve Steve

    That reminds me that the only “happy birthday” wishes I got this year from outside my family were from people who had been notified by MySpace or Facebook that I was having a birthday.

    Kinda sweet/creepy/sad.

  2. Jason Jason

    You’re talking about personal “forgetting” but a similar issue revolves around institutional forgetting…deleting patron records when they are no longer needed is a big deal in these days of subpoenas and PATRIOT acts.

    Libraries also need, occasionally, to forget.

  3. Iris Iris

    Just last night my brother’s roommate was protesting that it wasn’t his fault he’d forgotten their other roommate’s birthday because “Facebook didn’t tell me it was his birthday. Isn’t that what Facebook is FOR?!?”

    And you’re right, Jason, both the personal and the mechanical forgetting are important. I would argue that the car dealership could have “shredded” my dad’s personal info without reducing their effective servicing of his car… but apparently car dealerships don’t worry about subpoenas, or care about keeping only what they need.

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