Should YouTube support you in your habit of spending a whole evening watching cat videos, or should it try to convince you to spend your time in a better, possibly more rewarding, manner, such as watching a documentary or learning a language?
In my previous blog post, I explained why recommendations given to you are not only meant to satisfy you: Amazon hopes you will buy the recommended items, Facebook hopes that you will like the recommended posts and friends enough to spend a lot of time on the platform, advertisers hope that their advertisements are targeted enough for you to click on them, and apparently political parties hire shady companies to manipulate elections. I argued that more transparency on the stakeholders and their interests would make personalization less creepy, and bring back the original benefits and ambitions to give each individual user what this user wants, expects or needs.
But what is it that we want - or should want? In a very entertaining CHI'18 Extended Abstract, it is argued that this question is not an easy one to answer. If most people are perfectly happy spending the whole evening watching cat videos on Facebook, and continue clicking on these videos, this is what they want, isn't it? Or do they actually need some help to be stimulated - to be nudged - to do something useful, like reading poetry? But wouldn't that be patronizing, and who says that reading poetry is more useful or better than watching cat videos?
To take it a step further, even if we would agree that close friends, meaningful work, and good physical health are universal constituents of a good life, should recommender systems focus on our 'ideal self' or also let us indulge in bad habits that make us feel happy?
My take is that it really depends on the person and the context. For example, some people love running, others don't. I don't really like running, but I do love the feeling after a good run and I know that it's good for me. So if on a Sunday afternoon someone would suggest me to go for a run, there is a good chance that I would put on my running shoes. If you would suggest the same thing early Wednesday morning, I would tell you to p**s off. I would particularly hate it if an activity tracker would tell me that I really need to run today - other people do appreciate (or need) such suggestions, in order to remain disciplined.
What is time well spent?
Increasingly, humanity seems to believe that, eventually, we will be happiest when we optimize our productivity, carefully choose the healthiest diet, get our fair share of exercise and sports, and go to sleep when we need to - which is not neccessarily the moment that we are tired. Activity trackers and other instruments and apps help us in our self-optimization. Dave Eggers' novel The Circle clearly shows what such a 'brave new world' looks like.
But hey, spending an evening sharing a bottle of wine and catching up with a friend whom you haven't seen for ages, is time well spent too. Indulging in cat videos while eating a bag of popcorn might be exactly the thing you need after a stressful week.
I personally have three 'modes' of watching television. The first, arguably most productive, mode is watching informative documentaries, news broadcasts, and cultural events. Cultural events are more important and inspiring than soccer games, aren't they? Here you go, that's what I think, but most other people seem to think otherwise.
My second mode of watching television is relaxing with a carefully chosen movie, musical, concert or series. This is comparable to reading a good book, so one could argue that this is a productive mode too. At least it is a very comfortable mode. I might even pick up some inspiring ideas, but probably it won't bring me anything that improves my career or my health.
It rarely happens (really, it doesn't happen that often), but there are evenings when I just want (or need) to wind down with mindless programs, particularly cooking shows, but anything goes (except for sports). And I don't feel guilty about it, even though I could just as well have gone for a run - or read a book.
If my goal is to watch informative programs, I watch public broadcasting channels. If I aim to watch a good movie, I buy or rent a DVD or select it on Netflix or Amazon Prime. And if I just need mindless television, I zap to the commercial channels, with their predictable, horizontal programming.
User intentions on Facebook
Just as I watch television with different intentions, there are many different reasons for using Facebook. I use the platform for sharing professional updates, for promoting conferences or workshops, and particularly for promoting articles of the Dutch vegetarian website Vegatopia, of which I am webmaster. But I also use Facebook for catching up with the news, and for communicating with friends, for answering questions that are being asked, and many other social or otherwise meaningful things. And yes, I sometimes indulge in watching funny videos (which are more likely to be dog videos than cat videos, by the way).
The good thing is that Facebook does support all these modes, to a certain extent. I can choose to ignore all funny videos when being productive, and it is very easy for me to ignore all alarming news headlines while watching funny videos.
Does your partner always buy you a present you like?
In my lectures on personalization, I compare a good recommender with your partner, your best friend, or your mother. They know about the food that you like, things that interest or upset you, your current aspirations, the date of your birthday and perhaps even your secret desires. Still, that does not guarantee that your mother will buy you a present that you like. It can be something that you already have, that you hate for some reason only known to you, or for which you are simply not in the mood.
I don't think it is or should be the task of Facebook or YouTube to tell you what's good for you. They can - and usually already do - suggest different alternative directions to consider, and are perfectly aware that a diet of cat videos only will eventually put (almost) all users off. Leave it up to your partner, your mother (or your activity tracker, that's what you bought or installed it for, after all) to tell you to shutdown the computer and do something useful, or to watch something useful instead.