Know Me, Don’t Profile Me

Picture the scene. You walk into your small neighborhood coffee shop in the morning. The barista smiles at you from above his espresso machine and mouths “Flat white?” You answer with a smile and moments later you’re sipping your favorite drink.

It makes you feel at home. It makes you feel you’re amongst friends. That’s the kind of experiences we love.

Now picture another scene. Your car started making weird noises so you drive it to the garage, a place you’ve never been to. The mechanic asks you a series of technical questions. You stumble through the answers in a way that makes it pretty clear you don’t know much about cars. A few hours later the mechanic calls you back with a long list of things that need to be fixed and asks you to approve an expensive bill.

Not such a cool experience, now, is it? Makes you wonder if the mechanic somehow figured out that cars were not your forte and is trying to slip you a couple of unnecessary fixes.

These two experiences illustrate the difference between someone who knows you, versus someone who’s trying to profile you.

The concepts of knowing you or profiling you are similar in many ways but they differ in one key aspect. Someone trying to know you better engages in candid conversations. They happily let you know what they’ve learned about you. Their behavior makes it obvious that they’re not trying to extract information without you knowing. They allow you to set boundaries and keep some things for yourself.

Someone who tries to profile you does all the opposite. They watch you without you knowing. They infer things about you from your behavior but they won’t let you know what they’ve learned. Profiling happens in the shadows. It doesn’t let you choose what you’re willing to share or not.

There’s a word that captures that key difference between knowing someone and profiling someone: transparency.

The reason transparency is so important is that it allows the emergence of a trusted relationship. The candid conversations you have with your barista install a level of confidence. They allow you to trust that they want to know you in order to serve you better rather than to serve their own interests. Sure, it’s all about conducting a business transaction, but it’s one where you can be more confident that the goal is not to take advantage of you.

Now let’s transpose the scene to the online world. When you shop on the web, the site you visit tries to present you with a personalized item selection. Do they achieve that personalization by knowing you or by profiling you?

With traditional recommender systems there’s very little transparency as to what the online vendor knows or doesn’t know about you. Their knowledge is built by observing the log of your interactions, not on a history of candid conversations. This makes it hard for trust to emerge.

The personalized online shopping experience looks like a barista who knows your favorite coffee, but it feels like a mechanic trying to take advantage of you.

The feeling of being profiled also exists on our social networks. The order in which the reels are presented on TikTok clearly reflects some knowledge of our preferences, but we’re never offered an opportunity to learn what the system knows about us. We don’t have ways to set boundaries on that knowledge. We don’t have any mechanism through which we could build a trustworthy relationship with our social platforms.

These platforms are not trying to trick us with an inflated garage bill, but they are trying to steal our attention. They are trying to get us to keep watching their content… And when we regret spending too much time on their feeds they give us a poor excuse: “You can shut down the app at any time.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. At Waverly, we’ve built a new type of recommender system. One that is all about transparency. A platform that aims to know you. Slowly, though candid conversations, by letting you set boundaries whenever you want, by forgetting anything you want it to forget. A platform that work for you, with your best interests at heart.