Monday, June 14, 2004

We've been watching you

Most days for a few weeks now, I've read the same cute entry at the top of Alexis's Livejournal, in which she quotes an amusing message from
Dear Customer, We've noticed that many customers who've purchased albums by Various are also interested in music by John Williams.
Today I started wondering whom that 'we' refers to. Presumably, no person sat down and analyzed Alexis's viewing and purchase history and noticed something about her habits -- the reason the quotation is cute and amusing is that it demonstrates the clumbsiness of the automated suggestions -- a real person would recognize that "Various" is not the name of an artist. So Amazon has a big computer that has scanned Alexis's Amazon history, and it 'noticed' that she's a fan of Various. This part sounds ok, so far. I'm not too uneasy about the idea that there might be zero Amazon employees who have noticed anything about Alexis, but Amazon, nevertheless, has noticed. I'm not sure this is the wording that Amazon wants to use, though. I understand that "we've noticed" is more personal-sounding and inviting than "our records and statistical analyses indicate that", but I think the latter might be less disconcerting upon reflection. Consider the extremely similar phenomenon of Google's gmail's ad-targetting. I've been using gmail for a few weeks now (I love it) and it has 'noticed' some of my interests. I'm getting ads about Gilbert & Sullivan events and 49ers merchandise. Gmail wisely does not follow Amazon in anthropomorphizing its pattern-analyzing self:
Like Google search results pages, Gmail does include relevant text ads on the right side of the page. The matching of ads to content is a completely automated process performed by computers. No humans read your email to target the ads, and no email content or other personally identifiable information is ever provided to advertisers. (from the gmail FAQ)
It would be PR suicide for gmail to say, "So Jonathan, we've been reading your email and we've noticed you're a Niners fan and thought you might like to purchase an autographed Steve Young jersey". They're having enough privacy trouble as it is. Apparently there's an important difference between Amazon and Gmail: Amazon seems to thrive on selling itself as a smart person who watches us very carefully and anticipates our desires, while Gmail has to work very hard to avoid that impression.

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