Recently, I found myself in my local library, casually browsing over a wide selection of books. Best-seller lists tried to capture my eye by being first in my line-of-sight. The burgeoning shelves of the non-fiction world, filled with countless variations on the tried and tested ‘who-dunnits’ made their presence felt. The relatively unknown world of sci-fi winked coyly at me from the opposite side of room. And two thoughts occurred to me.
Firstly, I’m most likely a statistical anomaly; the only person in London between the ages of 11 and 65 who’s in possession of an actual, physical library card. And secondly, I can choose any book I want to.
I can go with what I know and look for a familiar authour’s name or genre. Or I could venture as far out into uncharted territories as I dare. Or something inbetween. And that’s what I did. I quite literally started judging books by their covers (front & back, though, of course – I’m not a total literary heathen). And out I walked with two; one I enjoyed immensely from a genre I knew and another which was fairly underwhelming, from an area new to me (I gave up 1/3rd of the way though; life’s too short to trudge through bad books or bad coffee – and certainly never at the same time). The latter was clearly out of my comfort zone. But learning what you don’t like is just as important as its reciprocal. You still learn all the same, more so in many cases.
And then it dawned on me. The chances of my having a similar experience online these days are growing more and more limited. My entire online ecosphere is designed around providing me with more of what I’ve bought before, my prior histories, what I’ve consciously sought out – most likely aligned to my prior tastes and experiences. It’s more of the same, over and over again. The conclusion of that line of thought leads to a narrowing of my consideration sets over time to even more of the safe, tried and tested options, time and time again.
That sounds like a special kind of hell to me. One that’s so much worse than the experience of learning that a certain style of book isn’t for me. It’s the reason why many Facebook feeds serve only to entrench prior held beliefs; we simply see more of the views that we’ve expressed an interest in before. We’re becoming less likely to meet a fresh way of looking at an old problem. And if, by chance, we do, we’re so entrenched and awash with prior held views, we’re likely to dismiss it as an opponent’s extremist view more readily than we might have in the past.
For me, this is where Kindles fall down. Netflix, too. Potential pitfalls in the highly successful Amazon approach. Recommended shows that are a slight variation on what you’ve just watched. Other users who enjoyed this book also liked this other, pretty similar one. Try this shirt to go with the new jeans you just bought, it’s kinda different to the last one you bought.
The joy of discovering the unknown, the unfamiliar, and the learning that goes along with it becomes easier and easier to pass us by. We’re awash in a world of big data, telling us what we like to read, how we like to dress, what we like to watch. But lacking in a world that helps us to discover the unfamiliar to us. And that’s a truly emotional experience. That’s an opportunity to delight, reframe and reposition a brand, service, product in our eyes. Change our previously held perceptions or stances. Open up our consideration sets.
It’s not a world where reams of data that delve into past behaviours will ever reveal to us, but it’s a world where so very many real people actually exist and live. And one that brands, through their online strategies, are increasingly closing off.