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University of Warwick

Personalisation in Digital Culture

Celia Lury
Scott Wark

Personalisation is a pervasive part of digital culture. Its applications include tailoring the content we see online to suit our presumed interests; targeting advertising; predicting the trustworthiness of loan applicants; or even shaping the delivery of government programmes. It’s clear that personalisation has become a regular feature of online services and our online interactions. In fact, we often take it for granted. But its broader impacts on how society is organised and governed and how it informs our participation in culture and politics are still emerging.

Personalisation in digital culture is changing the way we are grouped, sorted, and categorised. We explore these emerging forms of grouping through three case studies. First, we use an analysis of politicised hashtags – such as #JesuisCharlie and #MeToo – to examine how personalised modes of address create new group forms. These hashtags address groups: ‘People Like You.’ But the ‘You’ they address is always both singular and plural. By studying them, we show how they reconfigure issues of inclusion and exclusion, intensify oppositional dynamics, and lead to the amplification of differences between rival groups. Second, we investigate how personalisation generates new, sometimes reductive, modes of categorising people. Somewhat counter-intuitively, digital culture’s services and platforms can only be made personal by comparing ‘You’ to ‘People Like You’ – in other words, by sorting people into categories with other people whom they are ‘like.’ The promise of these techniques is that they can supersede older, blunter demographic categories, like race. By examining novel categories generated by machine learning – like Facebook’s ‘ethnic affinities’ – we ask how personalisation actually changes how we’re categorised and racialised today.  Third, we are also exploring how we are invited to participate in organisations and institutions such as ‘MyUniversity,’ which we consider to be a personalised generic. We consider whether and how such generics operate as brands or assets, a source of revenue and reputation.

Building on the recognition that personalisation requires participation, we also describe and investigate the various ‘genres’ this now takes. We have designed a public competition with design agency Rectangle to stage participation and examine its dynamics. In collaboration with colleagues from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago, Chile, we have also developed a prototype recommendation system, in the form of a smartphone app, that we use as part of a participatory study examining how people understand, engage in, and manipulate personalised recommendations (see Algorithmic Identities). Finally, we have also developed a collaboration with the artist Felicity Allen, who is developing a series of ‘dialogical portraits’ that use analogue techniques to examine portraiture and representations of the self today.

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