App Review—Zite Personalized Magazine—Algorithms Ain’t All They’re Cracked Up to Be

When I first met the Zite Personalized Magazine App I was totally infatuated. She was a total looker, great interface, and totally customizable. Our first dates were fantastic. We created structure by selecting several newspaper “sections” including: architecture, arts & culture, automotive, business & investing, film & tv, food & cooking, gadgets, health& exercise, mac news, personal finance, philosophy & spirituality, and sports.

Then we settled into a nice daily rhythm of just hanging out and reading. When I read an article on Steve Jobs, she asked me if I’d like more like it. “Yes,” I answered. Always so selfless, when I read a Sports Illustrated article on recruiting controversies at the University of Oregon she asked if I’d like more articles from Sports Illustrated (yes), about the University of Oregon (no), and NCAA recruiting (no). So inquisitive, and such a patient listener, she totally “got me” in very short order.

But now we’ve plateaued, maybe even started to drift apart a bit, and I’m not sure how to get the lovin’ feeling back. The problem is, with all her fancy pants algorithms, she’s gone overboard in personalizing my homepage. Nevermind what’s happening in Iran, Syria, or Putin’s Russia, my home page is filled with stories about Apple computer, college sports, and, not sure where she got this, Prince Harry partying in Belize.

As you know, whether we answer “did you like” inquiries or not, algorithm-based highly personalized internet suggestions and marketing are the future. iTunes and Netflix tells us what music and movies we’d like based each of our choices. Same with Amazon. At Amazon and other commercial sites we don’t even have to make purchases. Big Commercial Brother tracks our internet surfing and then creates personalized suggestions and ads.

“Free” customizable newspaper apps shouldn’t be as controversial should they? It’s a real time saver not having to sift through less interesting stories. Right? The problem is the end result—hyperpersonalized newspapers that make it less likely we’ll stumble upon interesting, quirky, challenging stories that stretch us. Spontaneity is sexy, endlessly staring into a mirror is not. We already live in economically and racially segregated neighborhoods, we watch television that affirms our political biases, and we attend churches and recreate with people that look like us.

Where are the diverse neighborhoods, schools, churches, and public places where people can begin learning how to get along with people different than them? People who are richer or poorer, people from across the political spectrum, people who are and aren’t religious. And where are the internet apps and websites where people’s thinking is challenged, nourished, deepened?

Another article on my Zite homepage today is titled, “The Gray Divorcés” which is about the increasing percentage of 50+ year olds deciding to divorce. (More evidence I was right that divorce is the new default.) I’m not quite ready to break it off with Zite altogether, but she’s getting on my nerves.

Grade: B-

11 thoughts on “App Review—Zite Personalized Magazine—Algorithms Ain’t All They’re Cracked Up to Be

  1. I just went retro. Subscribed to the Wall Street Journal and the weekend New York Times. Yeah, paper editions. Seem to actually read more of the articles that way. Do like the NPR website, though.

  2. Provocative and creative post. One such place is the YMCA- and partly because they give a lot of financial aid. There are lots of elderly, children and all in between, many disabled people, various socioeconomic groups represented, and ethnic and cultural diversity as well.

    • Thank you for your kind words dear reader. Forgive me though. I go to the “Y” to get my work-out on, not to chit chat.

  3. I’ve accidentally stumbled onto your post, and not only do I absolutely agree, we (at our studio) created a news app that addresses these issues exactly – a news app for iPad that doesn’t require any personalisation. Articles are selected based on a smart algorithm that uses traditional news logic – finding the balance between the “most important” and the “most popular” items. It’s called The Pelican, and I would love to hear your thoughts about it:
    https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/the-pelican/id523487333?mt=8

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