Personalization [draft] [#digitalkeywords]

“…the presumption of increased agency with personalization often neglects the ways in which personalized practices and ideologies are nonetheless vulnerable to institutional uses (i.e. governmental and corporate). These institutions, in turn, promote an ideology of personalization entirely compatible with the economic and cultural values of late-capitalism.”

The following is a draft of an essay, eventually for publication as part of the Digital Keywords project (Ben Peters, ed). This and other drafts will be circulated on Culture Digitally, and we invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please do honor that it is being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission. (TLG)


Personalization — Stephanie Ricker Schulte, University of Arkansas

New media technologies keep coming-biometric mobile telephones, Google Glass, geotracking, fitness monitors, ovulation predictors-and along with them come more avenues through which to link the personal and technological. “Personalization” is, in many ways, a keyword crucial to understanding the contemporary historical and cultural moment. Personalization is enabled by technologies, embedded in infrastructures, valued by enthusiasts, targeted by discontents, coveted by marketers, and central to contemporary debates.

This entry is a genealogy of personalization in relation to its technological and ideological iterations. First, it discusses the origins of the term personalization in a variety of disciplines, moments in history and realms of human interaction. Second, it focuses on technology, arguing that increased pleasure, autonomy, ease, and agency presumably expand through and within the personalization of technology. However, third, by tracing how humans infuse their own ideologies and daily practices into personal technology, this entry argues that human and institutional interactions shape the meaning of these new gadgets. Specifically, the presumption of increased agency with personalization often neglects the ways in which personalized practices and ideologies are nonetheless vulnerable to institutional uses (i.e. governmental and corporate). These institutions, in turn, promote an ideology of personalization entirely compatible with the economic and cultural values of late-capitalism.


Use of the terms “personalize” and “personalization” have increased significantly in recent years.[1] In 2014, Forbes called it a “hot retail buzz word.”[2] The origins of the terms (noun “personalization,” adjective “personal,” and verb “personalize”) all stem from the Latin personalis or personale, which means “pertaining to a person.” The word has a long and varied history in its application, which lies at the roots of philosophy (Aristotelian and Platonic debates about the limits of personal perspective; Cartesian dualism mind-body debates), psychology (Jungian personal unconscious; Freudian psychoanalysis) and religion (Martin Luther’s belief in a personal relationship with God). Though the keyword often signaled concerns separated from “public” matters, post-1968 identity politics articulated a politics of personalization, perhaps best encapsulated by Second Wave Feminism’s famous phrase “The personal is political.” More recently, political science has focused on the “personalization of politics,” which Lance Bennett describes as an era in which “personal action frames displace collective action frames in many protest causes.”[3]

Central to the concept of the personal and personalization is the notion of the individual human and human individualism, a centrality reflected in the various manifestations of the concept in everyday language: a “personal” indicates a newspaper notice pertaining to an individual reflecting individual desires or needs; to “take something personally” means to interpret an action as directed at the individual self (such as to view something as a personal insult); “personal property” indicates items that legally belong to an individual (such as personal letters or a personal computer); to “personalize” means to mark something to indicate it belongs to a particular individual (such as a personalized stamp or message) or to change it in accordance to an individual’s preferences or needs (such as personalized medicine or education).


Increasingly, technology plays key roles in the meanings associated with personal and personalization. For example, when the “personal computer” consumer market emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, computers became personal property, meaning they were small and affordable enough for individuals to purchase and operate. This was a significant shift that loosened the historical hold on computing technology by large institutions and government agencies with the resources to purchase, house, and maintain, the equipment. But the “personal computer” trend was also conceptual. In an interview published in the New York Times in 1962, an early computer scientist described what he called a “personal computer,” a portable and affordable machine that “everyone” would have in the future.[4] These machines would identify specific users and provide individualized information, such as offering a housewife her grocery list and bank account information in the grocery store or allow a bartender to forecast a drink order.

As this example illustrates, even before the technology was available, the “personal” in personal computer was about more than just ownership. It indicated industry and technological innovations that would put computers within reach of consumers and would make those machines reactive to individual needs as well as able to accommodate differences between individual users. “Personal” also indicated conceptual and practical innovations that would reframe computer utility in the minds and lives of individuals. All of these “personal” elements-ownership/access, reactivity/accommodation, thoughts/practices, centrality/embeddedness in everyday life-were necessary before the “personal computer” became such. Although clearly the technology has changed, elements crucial to the “personal” in personal computing have persisted, in some ways taking the ideas rooted in the personal computer-including personal ownership, personal responsiveness, and embedment in a variety of a person’s interactions (at home and at work)-but amplifying and expanding them through much of the western world.

With this expansion, industrial and technological innovations enabled personalization through digitization, miniaturization, customization, and individualization, co-constitutive trends that collapsed boundaries between personal practices and technological devices. By far, the most important technological development has been digitization, the transformation of information into discrete units. Digitization allowed information to more easily flow between devices, to be used in more varied ways, and applied using new metrics. For example, in the mid-twentieth century, military, academic and commercial institutions began creating mechanisms to convert analog sound waves into digital data sets, units of binary code that allowed sound recording on digital tape and, eventually, CDs and mp3. Debates persist about the relative quality of these sounds, but these technologies allowed sound to be more easily transported among platforms, paving the way for flexible, individual soundscapes enabled by walkmans, ipods and cellular ringtones.[5] Technologies of digitization also transformed medical records, bank accounts, travel documents, not to mention creating individual means to map and navigat environments. These are some of the many ways the personal went digital and the digital enabled the personal.

Miniaturization of computing technology enabled the creation of so-called “smart” mobile telephones that users could transport and use to take and post pictures. Customization and adaptive innovations allowed users to upload ringtones and wallpaper, to specify different ringtones for different callers. Social media sites, such as MySpace and Instagram, stood in wait for users, waiting for people to customize the online spaces with their own content and social connections. Miniaturization and customization both rapidly expanded the avenues for inserting unique, personal content into media venues.

A driving goal in creating smaller and more customized telephone technologies was to encourage users to form affective connections with their telephones, for phones to become ubiquitous parts of their lives. Apple fantasized users would take their iPhones “personally,” in a sense. In 2013 Americans spent an average 34 hours a week using their smartphones, more time than they spent on computers using the internet.[6] In addition to producing personalized content online, consumers also have access to increasingly customized products. Mass customization-the mass production of customized products, such as children’s books or running shoes ordered online-allow large companies to meet individual consumers’ needs in more specific ways.[7] As consumer markets for technologies like 3D printers expand, they expand the capacities for individuals to create and more diversely tailor materials in their lives, even manufacturing their own products.

These industry predictions, like many before them, as well as advertising campaigns and celebratory scholarship stress the ways digitization, miniaturization, and customization facilitate technology to better meet human needs: serving people, allowing them to develop and self-actualize. Human agency sits centrally to many of these hopeful narratives, which imagine technology crowdsourcing diverse cultures, politics and products, [8] reclaiming resources previously wasted, including human attention,[9] allowing individuals to discover their authentic selves[10] or evolve beyond their bodies by merging with technology.[11] Indeed, in 2006, Time magazine declared “You” the coveted person-of-the-year. The title featured a mirror and stated “You-Yes, You-Are TIME’s Person of the Year,” because, as the cover article noted, the “World Wide Web became a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter.” So many users, journalists, and industry executives worship at the church of Apple, Wired magazine and BoingBoing.

As miniature and customized technologies like mobile telephones and body monitors become more continuously used, they also produce more complex data sets about users. The AT&T smartphone “Find My Family” app tracks individual family members using GPS in their phones. This type of data aggregated with others, such as social networking connections, can provide a “social graphs,” a map of the interactions between people, a map of never-before-aggregated information about human relationships and networks. This rapidly expands the boundaries of digitization, distilling what once was amorphous personal connection (a type of property in some sense) and commodifying it. This information is valuable to a number of institutions and organizations. The development and security of data sets-both big and small-has been the source of most of the critiques of the technology in the contemporary era. Early identity theft and hacking anxieties developed, followed by more recent scandals about Target’s credit card security, Facebook and Google divulging personal information to governmental agencies or federal actions by the NSA that stretched individual liberty. These controversies sparked public debates that created strange bedfellows, pitting those fearing Big Brother on the same side as those contesting free market capitalism (Libertarians and Lefties). In scholarly circles, the specters of surveillance and discipline theorized by Nikolas Rose (using Michel Foucault) expanded as Karl Marx began to regained popularity, especially in areas focused on the application of individual monitoring to labor.[12] Many of these well-formulated and important critiques take up the security, utility, value, or ethics of data sets and corporate/government surveillance, although few adequately theorize personalization itself as an ideology animating such data sets’ creation. [13]

Tracking and recording unique data sets for individual people and their social networks allows marketers to provide tailored messages to unique individuals based on activities, locations, or enacted preferences. This “predictive personalization” (sometimes called hyper-personalization) uses contextual computing to divine relevant and pleasing messages, to predict what consumers will want and, ideally, to decrease advertising noise and irrelevant content. As techie Jaron Lanier noted, technology guides us into a comfortable groove.[14] While a remote control and a multitude of channels-the television model of the previous generation-allowed users to customize their viewing experience by, for example, watching channels that interested them or zapping instead of continuous viewing, predictive personalization allowed TiVo (or, more recently, Netflix) to anticipate the behaviors of a consumer to facilitate an already-generated and curated personalized viewing environment.


These examples illustrate the ways that “customization” and “personalization” are closely related but distinct concepts. While both imply creating individual-level distinctions or difference, they differ in their assumption of agency. Customization is reactive; personalization is predictive. Customization presumes the consumer choses from an array of options; personalization suggests content can be pre-determined, often by algorithms in service of corporations. Big data allows companies to work toward mass-personalization. To return to the geneaology, the “personal” in personalization betrays the assumption that the technologies, media content, and habits are reflections of the self or in service of the self. It suggests ownership. But what happens when one no longer owns his or her personal data? Is it still “personal” as such? In this way, genealogical questions become ideological in the interaction between user and technology.

It is the inflection of the self in and through technology that makes personalization trends problematic for many scholars. As Eli Pariser has noted, the filtering practices that curate media content, for example, ensconce individuals within their preferences, what he calls “filter bubbles.”[15] These bubbles not only prevent users from encountering oppositional viewpoints but also prevent users from seeing the decisions made in the background about how information is filtered. As Pariser (and Cass Sunstein before him) argued, this practice reinforces uniqueness rather than sameness. This runs the risk of fostering individualism, diminishing collectivity, polarizing politics, and facilitating corporate aims and profits untethered to social obligations.

For better or worse, it seems, digitization, miniaturization, and customization have facilitated personalization and individualization. But to remark on the power of personalization to individualize and, potentially, isolate, polarize, or surveil/control is not to brand the individual utterly powerless. Human practices (first and foremost) produce, regulate, make meaningful, and potentially regulate the contexts in which personal technology are developed and used. Indeed, personalization of technologies allows users to curate their own unique content, to cultivate new selves, collectivities, to expand the reach of their personal information and personal performances, to produce themselves as brands and marketers of those brands and achieve economic and social influence, a processes sometimes called “self-branding.”[16]

To be sure, this is agency, but a complicated agency that mixes technological capabilities and human practices within the contexts of late-capitalist, flexible economy and in increasingly competitive attention economies. Social filtering-“the selective engagement with people, communication and other information as a result of the recommendations of others”-allows a person’s social network to curate information, a practice that mixes individual desires and behaviors with the goals of marketers and mixes the strategies of technology producers with the idiosyncrasies of algorithms.[17]

Personalization is a technological trend and a set of practices that reflects a set of values, ideologies that are deeply historically, culturally, and economically situated and contingent. While the personal computer is in one sense an origin story, in another it is a story of continuity, one that reveals how technologies tap already latent values.[18] The ideologies of personalization were facilitated through technology, but, as James Carey might argue, those ideologies should not be mistaken for originating or only existing within technology.[19] Technologies seize on culture, manifest in culture and interact with various ideas in the cultural sphere. For example, the reconstitution of values around privacy and the rise of surveillance that have emerged in alongside the personalization of technology operate well within the cultural and economic contexts of late-capitalism. Privacy has become dis-incentivized, relatively difficult for individuals to maintain, and not particularly lucrative to protect for corporations. Increasingly, privacy structurally and culturally devalued, a price paid for access to media platforms, or even legally unprotected in the political sphere (for example, the legal implications of cell phone data and the Fourth Amendment currently hang in the balance before the Supreme Court.)

In conclusion, pre-existing ideas about the personal-rooted in the term’s Latin origins-animated technological development. Technologies were, in turn, produced as and deemed “personalized.” Once technology seized the language of the personal, it transformed our relationship to the term, intersecting with a series of competing and dovetailing ideologies that validated the cultural assumptions pre-existing and cultivated in the technological developments. To critique personalization as a term, a technology trend, and an ideology is not to condemn it as inherently atomizing, asocial, or apolitical. It is to take aim at some of its implications in terms of the way it shifts responsibility for privacy protection to the individual against the corporation and the government or ways that it further builds the power for corporations to collect data that would have previously only been able to be assembled by the state. A state is nominally answerable to citizens and a constitution, a mandate to promote the public good; a corporation has share-holders across a multinational context, a mandate to promote a market good. And, yes, technology does some of what it explicitly promises in the marketplace: empowers consumers and transforms their everyday practice with personalized features, information, and networks.

These incentives and practices came together and developed in tandem with the personalization of technology. And this personalization helped change the terms of our politics by appealing to us as consumers not citizens. But what happens through technology can mobilize many of the affiliations that inform our political identifications and reconfigurations. It is still political, or maybe what Lauren Berlant calls “juxtapolitical” in that it feels political and radical even if it is not.[20] Indeed, accusing someone of “taking something personally” has a long history as a mechanism for dismissing the insights of those experiencing injustice or structurally marginalized. When “personal” gets co-opted into technology and markets as a path to individual agency, does it diminish the possibility to discuss structural inequality? When Siri fails to understand an iPhone user’s Chinese accent, is that user-error? Or is it an indication that western English speakers create the technology (even thought Chinese factory workers often assemble it)? Because people have the tools associated with personal self-actualization and agency, does that diminish their grievances?

In addition, as “personalization” processes and practices accelerate and, presumably, the values associated with it become more unquestioned and dominant, what happens to the values embedded or inherent in the residual (to use a Williams term) practices and values personalization helps overtake? What of the “standardization” of previous technological eras that produced anxiety about conformity but also enthusiasm for a national or mass culture? What might resistance to personalization look like? “Depersonalization?” Does media-refusal become a political position, or embedded in identity politics? As we move ask some of these questions, as we must remember that we cannot understand historical moves toward personalization without understanding the mechanisms through which those movements were and are reinforced and enacted. However, while ideas about personalization are embedded in and reinforced through technologies, technologies themselves raise new ideas about personhood, privacy, and technology itself. Critiques of these ideas must incorporate the technology through which they flow. Critiques of the technologies must involve critiques of the values these technologies engender or cultivate.


* Thank you to Laura Cook Kenna and Julie Passanante Elman for their feedback.

1. 714% increase between 1960s and 2000s (Collins Dictionary Trend Metric); 417% increase between 2005 and 2014 (Google News Headline Metric)

2.  Barbara Thau, “How Big Data Helps Stores Like Macy’s And Kohl’s Track You Like Never Before.” Forbes, January 24, 2014:

3.  Lance Bennett, “The Personalization of Politics: Political Identity, Social Media, and Changing Patterns of Participation.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 644, (2012): 20-39.

4. “Pocket Computer May Reduce Shopping List,” New York Times, November 2, 1962.

5. Todd Gitlin, Media Unlimited, Revised Edition: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives. New York: Picador, 2007.

6. “How Smartphones are Changing Consumers’ Daily Routines Around the Globe Mobile.” Nielsen, February 24, 2014:

7. Bagley, Rebecca. “How 3D Printing Can Transform Your Business,” Forbes, May 3, 2014:

8. Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2013; Eric Schmidt, and Jared Cohen. The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business. New York: Knopf, 2013.

9. Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus. New York: Penguin Press, 2010; Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin, 2011.

10. Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants. New York: Viking, 2010.

11. Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near. New York: Viking, 2005.

12. Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self. London: Free Association Books, 1999. Also see Andrew Ross, “In Search of the Lost Paycheck” and Mark Andrejevic, “Estranged Labor.” In Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. New York: Routledge, 2013.

13. Kelly Gates, Our Biometric Future: Facial Recognition Technology and the Culture of Surveillance. New York: New York University Press, 2011; Joseph Turow, Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011; Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. New York: PublicAffairs, 2013

14. Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2010.

15. Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think. New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

16. Sarah Banet-Weiser, Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2013; Allison Hearn, “‘Meat, Mask, Burden’ Probing the Contours of the Branded ‘Self,'” Journal of Consumer Culture 8, no. 2 (2008): 197-217.

17. Michele Willson, “The Politics of Social Filtering.” Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 20, no. 2 (2014): 218-232.

18. Anna McCarthy, Citizen Machine: Governing by Television in 1950s America. New York: New Press, 2010. This book illustrates this in advertising in an earlier era.

19. James Carey, Communication as Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992

20. Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.