Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Orbitz vs Mac Users: Personalization or Price Scam

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an article about how travel site Orbitz serves pricier hotel results to Mac users (link on the story on MacRumors). It looks like the story has gained a lot of traction ala Mac users feeling like their getting worked over by the travel site and Orbitz attempting to defend their practice by saying that the results are the same, but Mac users tend to prefer more expensive hotels.

Perhaps the funniest thing about the outrage surrounding this is the underlying expectation from many people that the page that they see is identical to the page that is produced on the computer sitting next to them. Even when we log in to a site that includes our name in the top corner, we want to believe that what we're seeing is essentially the same as everyone else. And it's not just the technology ignorant, you can even find programmers, web designers and sophisticated users with stories of forgetting that their view was different.

But the individualized experience scares people when it comes to shopping and price manipulation. No one wants to be the woman taken advantage of by the auto mechanic or the guy duped by the used car salesman. It's why we watch the scanners at the grocery store to make sure that the prices match, that the checker doesn't scan something twice, or that he doesn't weigh stuff with his thumb on the scale.

Manipulation and exclusion makes people angry. Consider cases like Dyson v. Denny’s Inc., the nationwide class action race discrimination law suit against Denny’s Restaurants. But beyond discrimination, when you go to a restaurant, it can be particularly frustrating when you're presented with a different menu and potentially different prices. Sure, I may not speak Mandarin and I might prefer orange chicken over duck tongues, but there is a part of me that is pretty sure that I would like to have the option. It's even worse with spicy food -- I really do want 'thai hot' and I'm pretty sure that the Szechuan version is probably quite a bit spicier than this.

It's a thin line between feeling helped and feeling cheated or manipulated.

And so, in our minds we envision this illusory model, the complete data set. We imagine that if we just had pure, unadulterated access to all of the real data, we could quickly and accurately match our interests. If we could just see the results of the Google algorithm without the bias of our previous behavior, that we could do better. But our cognitive expectations and the tools that we've developed to manage truth versus manipulation have become obsolete in this modern information world.

We compare the price on the shelf to the price at the checkout, when the prices are being written dynamically as we walk past them in the aisle. Each person that walks may see a different price. You may even see a different price each time you pass by.
  • Oh, you're interested in those? How much would you pay if there were only two left? 
  • So, you're pretty sure about that flight that you looked at a couple of minutes ago? I'm sorry, the seat that was $50 less is gone; perhaps you'd better commit this time. 
  • Pregnant? Maybe we can help change your shopping habits with coupons for unscented moisturizer. 
  • Do you work at Facebook or in the Bay Area and are in charge of monitoring ads for scammy behavior? Everything is fine because we don't serve our scammy ads to addresses in that region.
  • Are you a politically conservative and need some info to support some outlandish quote? Here's the alternate version of history that you were looking for... with pictures!
This is the reality of life in a dynamically written big data world. And so, while we might be okay with -- or benefit from -- Google search results taking our location or our browsing history into account when presenting results, we worry that the results may also be shaped by corporate sponsors, political agents, or even an overreaching, heavy-handed effort to make Google+ successful.

Of course, Google is easy because we know search is a dynamic system. The reality is that, as you look across the vast expanse that is the Internet, the world that you experience and the truth that you see is yours alone. And it may be shaped by your location, your politics, greedy bastards manipulating you for profit, or even some unseen, unimaginable agenda that spans time and demographics. Perhaps it's time to re-envision our epistemology for the Internet age.

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