The Culture of Recommendation: Has It Gone Too Far?

Isn’t it incredible that the Web has afforded us the ability to find any bit of information we desire? It’s all at our fingertips; at any given time, we are mere moments from having the answers we seek about just about anything. Not only that, but the social Web has given us an extra layer, one that has become so ingrained in our online world that it’s easy to miss – the culture of recommendation.

No longer do we have to waste precious seconds calling up Google, typing in keywords and browsing through countless search results. No, now we can just crowdsource everything we need! Want to know what movie you should see this weekend? Ask Facebook. What should you eat for dinner tonight? Yelp knows! Should you wear the pink sweater or the blue one? You don’t have to decide – you can just ask Twitter!

This doesn’t just happen when we crowdsource our lives. The culture of recommendation has permeated every aspect of our online existence. Ads appear on sites you surf based on your browsing history. Tools like GetGlue and even YouTube incorporate sophisticated recommendation engines that push content to you based on the things you like. Many people see this as a good thing. It’s the personalization of content, serving up the things the system thinks you’ll dig, and pointing out and making recommendations on what you should consume.

Recommendations may make the WWW go round, but at what point are we simply shutting down our own opinions in lieu of what everyone else thinks? Sure, I love to hear what my friends have to say about stuff as much as the next person, but is it possible that we’re taking the opinions of our friends too far? Are we losing sight of our own preferences, our own tastes, our own values, because we think everyone else knows better?

What happens when our online experience starts to become based solely on content that is fed to us because at some point previously, someone (or some computer program) thought we’d be interested and recommended it to us? At what point do we simply shut down our own desire to seek out new things, and just decide to be passively spoon-fed, much in the same way that mass media spoon fed us back in the old days?

It seems to me, that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

What say you?

[photo credit: scribbletaylor on Flickr]

Category:online media
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  • February 22, 2011 at 7:26 am

    Suze –
    I’ve noticed something funny about me — I’m an outlier and I am on the net a lot. I live on facebook (for work), google reader (for inspiration), twitter (for connection) and am a super surfer.

    I started getting so many varying opinions and referrals and recommendations. I found that I was inundated with information. I came full circle and just rely on my likes, wants and needs – and not what someone else thinks I should like, want or need.

    But then, I’m a strong, independent woman with a big mind of my own – and outlier or not, it would have happened anyway.

    So I think our personalities are emphasized online. Are you a wus? Then the wus hunters will find you. Are you a bully? You’ll find someone new to bully. That would have happened in real life anyway, it’s just amplified online.

    Just my opinion!

    • February 22, 2011 at 7:42 am

      I think there are a lot of people who feel the same as you Deb – strong, independent. But I do feel we live in a culture where we have been conditioned to think it’s easier to just go along with what everyone else thinks. That stems from the days of mass media dominance. I fear we are again becoming passive players in the media game.

  • February 22, 2011 at 7:28 am

    Susan I totally agree with this. I find that the ethics behind this type of shilling have gone out the window. No one is disclosing if they are working for a business while the praise & recommend them via social media/blogs etc but are simply “acting” like the business in question is just “so great” they have to share. I can pin point several instances of this where not only would the shiller not admit to being paid by the business but actually denied it. I now stick to friends & trusted colleagues for recommendations.
    Great post!

    • February 22, 2011 at 7:43 am

      It’s true, it’s hard to tell shilling from true recommendations anymore. Best bet is to rely on those whose opinions you trust.

  • February 22, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Couldn’t agree more. I might just be prickly, but I hate ads that pop up based on what I’ve been recently searching. It reminds me I’m being tracked all over the place. No one likes feeling like they’re being followed or stalked in real life, so imagine when you’re online. You feel like you can’t be private anywhere.

    As for recommendations, I throw out questions all the time and never get a response on Twitter. Ever. And to be fair, my queries might not be easily answered. As for recommendations for places to eat, I prefer to try things out on my own first, then give a recommendation rather than be afraid of new things to the extent that I’m willing to allow other tastes, preferences and opinions make my mind. I have half a brain, and I’ve been assured I’m only a quasi functioning retard, so while I can, I will select my own food, thank you. 🙂

    • February 23, 2011 at 10:54 am

      It also comes down to who you trust for recommendations, Stace. If I was coming to your town, for instance, you’re one of the first people I’d ask about places to eat, because I know you’re a foodie and we like the same sort of things. I may not take the opinion of the masses so much to heart.

  • February 22, 2011 at 11:50 am

    Yes, I think it’s gone too far. How much more online crap-tools (yes, I said it!)will be created to distract us, and give their predecessors a run for their money?

    I want to have a party where no one checks their cell phones or crackberries.

    Yesterday, my husband and I had Presidents Day (US Holiday) off, and planned to spend the day downtown, viewing art. We paid our train fare, and clicked through the turnstyle, and went up to the train platform. And once we did, he made an “oh, sh*t” noise.

    “What?” I asked.

    “My phone is in the car.” He had this pained look on his face that said, “Do I run back now, lose the train fare, and pay again, or do I suck it up and go all day without my phone?” You could tell he wanted to go with option #1.

    I thought he was panicked because he was expecting a call, or needed to be reachable, due to his job.
    “You can use my phone,” I said.

    “No, no!” he protested. “I wanted it to look up stuff!” (He has an iphone; I do not. I have a data phone, but it is amazingly limited.)

    I told him to pretend it was 8 years ago, when we met, and how about we go downtown and actually enjoy each other’s company? 🙂 It was tongue in cheek — we are not *that* tied to our devices. But it was entertaining to see how freaked out he was by not being able to *look stuff up* for a few hours.

    • February 23, 2011 at 10:55 am

      We are so focused on what everyone else is saying that we forget what’s right in front of us sometimes. So true. The conversation is addictive.

    • February 23, 2011 at 11:29 am

      I haven’t owned a cellphone and had it activated in at least 6 years. Nothing could be more liberating than relying on one’s self for amusement, opinion and company when out in public or at home alone.

  • February 22, 2011 at 2:22 pm


    The more things change the more they DO stay the same.
    The issue here is the “filter”. When you want something, say a place to eat, the internet can provide you with 1,000 options. Great, but as we all know, decisions become exponentially harder, the more options there are. So we look for a “filter”. In the world of mass media, the filter was whoever had the $$ to advertise in said media more – “Oh, we’ll eat at Perkins, I know them from their ads”. In the brave new world of online media, something has to replace this. We can’t parse ALL the information coming to us all the time, so we need to filter it. The “recommendation” has become the new filter. So our behaviour hasn’t changed at all, only the mechanism.
    (Craig Anderton wrote about this years ago, specifically regarding music – it just applies to everything now.)

    • February 23, 2011 at 10:56 am

      But at what point do we just decide to start exploring on our own? Is there no place for discovery anymore?

  • February 23, 2011 at 10:41 am

    I’m far less likely to be swayed by reviews online today. And that’s in large part due to the fact that there are so many are just opinions without a shred of fact. Music is another troublesome area, particularly where you can’t tell from the write-up whether the reviewer actually liked the record (I’m looking at you, pitchfork). That’s not to say I don’t believe in the wisdom of crowds. When dining out, for instance, I’ll often ask the server “what’s really popular on the menu?” I’m rarely disappointed.

    • February 23, 2011 at 10:57 am

      The Web is like the waiter more than ever before. There might be another blog post in there. 🙂

  • February 23, 2011 at 10:59 am

    There have always been, and will always be, those who seek the advice of others and those who follow their own lead. In the past the family or peers offered advice to those who didn’t trust their own judgment. And there have always been the precocious few who set the trends and resisted peer and family pressure to conform. Mass media and the advice of our internet friends will only influence those who would have turned to their family and friends in the past to tell them what to wear, what to think. Free thinkers will continue to set their own course.

  • February 24, 2011 at 1:44 am

    I am with you on this to some extent .. the fact that most of us are prey to the “herd mentality” does not mean that this spoon feeding is bad at all times. I benefit a lot from recommendations and twitter shares for content which otherwise i wouldnt have come across .. but that rarely makes me stop searching for stuff “explicitly” !
    For example if my interests are in say functional programming, following an expert in that domain always adds to my knowledge … I dont think that people end up just consuming stuff recommended to them and stop hunting totally ?!

  • February 26, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    In my opinion, Yelp and Amazon both suffer from oversaturation – so many reviews that I don’t know what to make of them (or of the average ratings across the range of review[er]s).

    However, I still find the Netflix ratings invaluable in choosing movies – both to rent / stream from Netflix and to watch in theaters. Their recommendation engine gives consistently more accurate rating estimates than any source of reviews or ratings I encounter elsewhere. I regularly read reviews in newspapers that lead me to believe I’d like a movie, but I always am disappointed whenever I watch any movies for which Netflix estimates less than 4 stars (out of 5).

    That said, your comments about over-reliance on social input reminds me of an article by Sherry Turkle a few years ago, which prompted me to write a blog post on self-reflection vs. self-expression (here’s a disembedded link, in case embedded HTML is disallowed here:

    Also, the recent leaks about email from HB Gary regarding persona management software should make all of us more wary of relying too heavily on social media sources of input (again, a disembedded link, just in case:

  • April 4, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    “Sometimes, without the group mind, the individual was lost.

    Bernays believed that as a consequence, men would often rather sacrifice the truth than lose the fellowship of the group.

    Therein lies the power of ratings and recommendations. The individual is not looking for the best book, film, or whatever. He or she is looking for the group.”



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