Eye in the sky

The Internet runs on recommendations. “You might also like” may as well be the web’s universal slogan. Whether it’s similar items on Amazon, a related article, or a friend-liked-this ad on Facebook, recommendations have become almost invisible to us while we surf and click away.

Yet I’ve recently found myself recommending jobs, products, and connections to friends manually, in real life, on my own, every day. What gives?

Unfortunately, as good as computers are at choosing things we might like, their suggestions are no substitute for actively thinking of people you know.  If web companies had their way, we’d be completely selfish and isolated from the world, passively observing each other and deciding what content to take in, products to buy, and places to go, only because they told us so.

We need to fight back, and constantly looking out for each other is the only defense we have.

The I

It’s a powerful idea for brands and retailers: just ingest as much data as you can about your users, do a little machine learning magic, and voila. Instant increases in engagement, conversion rates, and sales.

But the ingestion part is predicated on us generating a lot of data about ourselves in the first place. And boy do we ever. Entire companies and technologies have been built to collect, analyze, and apply insights about us from the data trails we leave around the Internet. It’s frequently referred to as our “data exhaust”.

Of course, the operative word is ourselves. All our activities online are about expressing the I. Inwardly, it’s I want to see (a click), I want to buy (a wishlist or cart), and I want to remember (a bookmark). Outwardly, it’s I want to share (a post), or I enjoyed (a like) or I read (a tweet) or I visited (a check-in).

All the best companies have perfected the art of beckoning you to express your I. They’re trained to elicit our self-interested actions and enable us to express ourselves better, which indirectly accrues value to the community writ large — what Vin Vacanti calls “The Invisible Hand of the Internet“. The more frequently you pick up an app to show the world what you like, the more data exhaust they have to harvest.

Modern Joneses

If the invisible hand is going to take care of us, why should we be worried?

Let’s look at what’s really going on. Social media is espoused as being all about engaging with each other: we comment, we @ reply, we give feedback. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Fred Wilson calls it the 100/10/1 rule. Most people online will lurk on the sidelines, watching what others do and read and like and buy but not engaging at all.

Presumably, recommendations are meant to be that invisible hand on the Internet. Web companies will use your friends’ and strangers’ self-interested data to extract all the best stuff for you. So all you need to do is keep lurking, watching what’s recommended, and your life will be taken care of.

That kind of passive observation is our new form of keeping up with the Joneses.


No matter how accurate online recommendations get, there’s always an element of serendipity about someone else just so happening to like something because you do. Relying on detached observation alone leads to missed opportunities when something is perfect for you but not for me.

If you need proof, just think of everything you’ve loved, everything that’s changed your life. I bet you’ll be hard-pressed to name one of them that was recommended to you by a web service.

Our resistance, then, is being intentional. It’s every time we reach out to a friend and say “hey there, I saw this and think it’d be great for you”.

As humans, we’re capable of empathy and perspective-taking. Meeting and learning about someone affords us a tacit understanding of their needs, desires, hopes, and aspirations. While computers can be good at mining what we say, they’ll always miss the parts that go unexpressed or even unrealized. And they’re susceptible to a filter bubble.

So don’t let your friends become dependent on arms-length recommendations. View your world — every interaction, every observation walking down the street, and every thing you try out — as an opportunity to connect with a friend. Who would benefit from this? Who would it inspire? Who’d die for this job? Who would love to meet this person?

You can start with small steps and triggers. Next time you’re about to hit the ‘like’ button, stop yourself and send it to someone who’ll love it instead.

Truly watching out for each other is the essence of our humanity. The invisible hand may get stronger by the day, but it’ll never have eyes.

2 thoughts on “Eye in the sky

  1. Since reading this I’ve been pondering the idea of digital serendipity and it came up in conversation with a work colleague today. I found myself repeatedly coming back to some of the ideas you discuss here, which is definitely a sign of a good post. Thanks

  2. […] presents itself. And as I experience life, I keep other people at the top of my mind so I can show, tell, and send them things that will make them happy. I know that in comparison to you, I’ll always come up short on this dimension, but you make […]

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