Friday, August 12, 2011

We Don't Need No Stinking (News) Badges

I have two Google accounts, and the one that I use less frequently is still trying to welcome me to “Google News badges.” When I navigate to Google News while signed in under that account, it shows me a helpful link to a video introducing me to this innovative new way to personalize my news experience. In all honesty, I think this is by far the most absurd in a long stream of ridiculous elaborations upon once-simple online interface. Practically every second of that one minute introductory video bothers me, and I think it’s best to attack it line-by-line.

“If you’re a regular reader of Google News, you might read dozens of articles every month, but wouldn’t it be nice to keep track of what you read most?”

Um… no? Yes? Well, towards what end? On the one hand, if I wanted to maintain statistical data on my news-reading habits, I’m pretty sure I could accomplish that just by paying close attention. I pretty sure I already have a fairly thorough comprehension of what my main interests are when it comes to the news. They are, after all, my interests. Why would I need an external mechanism for keeping track of my reading habits? Are there readers of Google News who just personally aren’t sure what they’re interested in reading about? Do some people only read their morning news before they’ve woken up, so that their acquisition of information is controlled completely by their unconscious minds, keeping the patterns of their own reading a secret to them in their waking life? Google, isn’t what you really want to ask, “Wouldn’t it be nice for our advertisers to keep track of what you read most?”

“With Google News badges, you can learn about your reading habits, create a more personalized experience on Google News, and find articles on your favorite topics…”

Can’t I find articles on my favorite topics by searching for them or adding a personalized section? I don’t see why I would create a more personalized experience on Google News by enabling a new function that allows Google to effectively tell me what I’m interested in, rather than, say, by deciding on an individual basis what headlines and topics are most interesting to me on each separate day. Suppose I’m the sort of person who likes to read about foreign affairs when I’m happy but the economy when I’m pissed off, or who peruses the entertainment section when it’s raining, but goes straight to hard news on sunny days? Can the badges system personalize my experience by gauging my mood and taking into account the weather in my locality on a given day? Ranking one’s prior reading habits and grouping every specific point of interest into broad categories is a rather shallows concept of personalization. Why call it that, when what you’re really offering me is a way to take decisions about my own priorities out of my hands? Quite the contrary to personalizing my experience, a system like this strikes me as a means of making my intellectual engagement far more robotic and generalized.

“The more you read, the more your badges will level up.”

I see, so the major selling point of this new system will be the ego of users. People will be able to compare their own news consumption with that of friends and rivals, and feel good about their informed civic engagement on the basis of how many similarly-grouped news articles they’ve clicked into, rather than on the basis of acquiring a broad range of information and demonstrating their intelligence and capability of retention in conversation or other acts of genuine engagement with issues and events.

“Badges not only help you keep track of what you’ve read, they also make it easier to add personalized news sections on the topics you care about most.”

I can already do that by typing a subject keyword. And I think that’s a far better way of going about it because that requires that I first personally recognize what I care about and make a decision to keep better apprised of it, as opposed to waiting for Google to tell me what my past clicks indicate my primary concerns are. Adding the sections according to my own initiative also allows for my interests to change from week to week, which is something I would expect of a dynamic, curious mind. I would much rather be able to decide for myself what is important to me now, even if it doesn’t match with the way I was feeling last month or last hour. I think it would be a distraction to my own curiosity to have Google constantly reminding me that, no, based on my prior reading habits I’m really interested in politics, not art.

“…You can choose to share them across your social network if you want to find shared interests with friends or spark conversations around certain topics.”

Sounds great! I love to find shared interests and spark conversations, but I do it by actually talking with people. I think it’s both more productive and more relevant for all parties involved that way, but then maybe I’m just old fashioned.

“So keep track of what you’re reading, read more of what you like, and share what you love with friends. Come badge up with Google News.”

Honestly, Google, do you think I wasn’t going to do just that if you hadn’t developed this special user interface, essentially to connect me to my own mind? I don’t know what’s worse: the idea that you were cynical enough to think that we need your guidance to find out which current events we’re interested in learning about, or the idea that the existence of this system and others like it will push people in exactly that direction, prompting them to operate on the awareness that they don’t have to remember anything so long as there’s an internet connection – not even what they’re reading, or what they care about, or what they think.

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