Personalization’s Chief Risk and Reward: Identity Reinforcement

Identities can be politically and emotionally powerful. They provide an orientation to the world and a path to community formation. From there, political action on behalf of that group is also possible, a step in the path of the marginalized to social acceptance and empowerment. 

What’s more, it’s not just historically marginalized or minority groups — women, LGBTQ+ individuals, people of color, etc. — who benefit from identities. Men, to name one historically dominant group, may benefit from identity. They learn through that signifier what it means to walk the path prescribed to their gender, and while they may diverge from that path or pave their singular version of it, the common experience the word denotes confers a sense of community and direction not dissimilar to the benefits of identities for the underrepresented.

But identities also come with political, social, and personal risk. For example, toxic masculinity is the name progressive politics has given to the potential dangers of male identity as a social practice. But what toxic masculinity attempts to define is in fact a danger of all identities: namely, that the identity may not only include harmful traits under its umbrella but also impose upon those who identify with it a rigid aesthetic, behavioral, and emotional code that punishes nonconformists. 

The latter danger — the potentially rigid and exclusionary structure of identities — is by no means limited to masculinity (even if the danger of identity’s strictures is more urgent in the case of historically empowered groups who can use that power to oppress the structurally disempowered). Identity literally refers to a thing that is equal, or identical, to itself, and identities typically foster ideology about what someone with a certain identity must be like. If we accept, consciously or unconsciously, the limits of our identities, we risk missing opportunities for solidarity with those who differ from us, screening out dissenting views, and restraining our own subjectivity — who we are, what we believe, whom we see as friends.

These are the risks and rewards of identity. They are also the risks and rewards of personalization, the practice, often enabled by martech, of exposing internet users to content and other users related to their perceived identities.

Criticism of personalization

In an episode of “Pivot” last week, Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway denounced the algorithms on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter that drive personalization. Their arguments, like those of most personalization critics, hinge not necessarily on the evils of personalization in itself — showing people more content they’re likely to want to see based on their interests and attributes, or identities — but on personalization’s tendency to create ideological echo chambers, inflame combative emotions, and fuel misinformation by surrounding people with content they’re likely to affirm while marginalizing dissent. 

All these dangers can be tied back to the danger of the logic of identity itself: the idea that who a person is, and therefore the content they should see on Facebook or Instagram, can be boiled down to specific traits reducible to data points. Personalization algorithms perceive and then reinforce identities and interests; someone is taken to be interested in a certain type of content or to identify with it, and they then receive content that reinforces the initial perception about who they are and what they like. While one may critique the misinformation associated with personalization without discussing identity, the latter lies at the foundation of the echo chambers martech’s critics commonly decry.

Why viewing personalization as a question of identity matters

Here’s why viewing personalization as a question of identity matters: If we understand martech companies — and the tech companies, such as Facebook and Google, that make their billions via martech — as identity-producing machines, we can more readily understand the strengthening of identities across the political spectrum and social life in the post-Facebook era. The internet as we know it facilitates the solidification of identity-based communities, be that through Facebook’s algorithms or searches for community-based groups on Google or Reddit. 

To discuss the politics of martech and personalization, then, is to embark on a discussion about identity’s core benefits and dangers — and the conversation is not so simple as saying that misinformation is bad, thereby making personalization bad, too. Martech’s politics is identity politics; we can’t discuss the risk of misinformation tied to personalization on social networks without discussing the communities and social progress enabled by the proliferation of identity-based communities on the web.

In addition, reckoning with identity as the core question of personalization points us to perhaps the fastest path to reimagining how the internet functions. What if digital experiences did not hinge on identities of any kind? What if audiences were unknowable through the lens of identity or treated as irreducible to codes such as “Hispanic,” “female,” and “straight”? What would digital marketing look like? What would currently personalized user experiences look like? How would we navigate life, connections, and content online if our subjectivity were not reducible to identities?

Martech doesn’t just measure identities; it produces them

Mostly, I write this column in the hopes of provoking thought and questions, not to provide answers as to whether personalization is good or bad. But there is one definitive thought with which I’d like to close this brief reflection on personalization, martech, and identity.

Discussions of martech and identity often focus on marketers’ ability to measure identity in order to offer personalized recommendations, experiences, and ads. But martech does not merely allow marketers to measure online identities; it strengthens and even produces identities by nudging people toward content and communities related to presumed identities and allowing them to discover such content and communities of their own accord. 

Martech, then, is not an industry that merely measures or codifies consumer behaviors, interests, and identities. It is an industry in the business of manufacturing identities. And that is an awesome political and economic power in both the positive and negative senses of the word.

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Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018 and compiled the daily newsletter since 2016. Joe is a journalist who has written widely about technology, business, and politics. You can contact him at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.