When I go to Twitter (sorry, “X”), I mostly want to see what’s trending. The default tab when you open the app is the “for you” tab, which shows content the X algorithm thinks you’d like to see based on what it knows about you. The thing is, what I really want is to see what the world is interested in and talking about outside of myself, so I’ll immediately go to “Trending”.
Same issue with YouTube. When I open the page, regardless if I’m logged in or not, the main page shows me recommended videos based on what I’ve previously watched and engaged with. While it’s pretty accurate in what I generally gravitate towards, I love seeing what’s trending overall especially because it helps me develop new interests I didn’t know I could uncover.
Social media execs discovered long ago that the secret to engagement is to get people into echo chambers where everyone agrees with you and then having those echo chambers fight each other for even more engagement. Everyone thinks they’re right because their opinions get lots of likes from like-minded people and people will easily get into long-heated threads arguing back and forth if someone doesn’t agree with them. There is hardly room for nuance or compromise when everyone is shoved deeper into the extreme ends of their beliefs.
Take the vaccine debate. It was always a heated topic but social media during the pandemic shot the discourse up to the max. Many anti-vaxxers claimed the vaccinated were a bunch of Govt-sheep or experimental guinea pigs and many pro-vaccine advocates claimed anti-vaxxers were Trump-supporting selfish idiots who should die of Covid. Meanwhile, in the middle-ground, there were individuals who weren’t anti-vax entirely but didn’t get the vaccine because of animal testing (many vegans), or people who got the vaccine but believed in personal choice, or people who were generally pro-vaccine but were more hesitant than usual because the vaccine seemed rushed and wanted to research further. Alongside many more non-extreme ends of the discussion.
Which brings us to the developing stage of new media – Extended Reality (XR). These personalized experiences from social media companies has until recently been confined to the rectangle screens we interact with daily. But outside of that we’re still in a world that’s not manufactured to our specific needs or interests and our various communities are built through compromise. The convergence of personalized content algorithms and XR will completely reshape the way we interact with digital environments. By gathering real-time data and insights, XR can create experiences that mirror the tailored content we encounter on social media platforms.
There’s at least one potential upside to personalized experience. One big reason modern education isn’t effective is because it doesn’t work with individual learning styles. Education and job training could be revolutionized, with students and new hires learning complex subjects through interactive XR experiences designed to match their learning style.
The downsides are a bit more obvious. Users would find themselves trapped in narrow, self-reinforcing virtual environments that only amplify their existing beliefs and interests. This could hinder personal growth, limit exposure to diverse perspectives, and contribute to societal polarization. Like today’s social media but sent into overdrive.
Similar to online ads, XR can deliver immersive advertisements based on user behavior and interests. But it goes deeper than that. These spaces could adapt to users’ preferences, reflecting their hobbies, favorite colors, or even memories they cherish. Product placements would be perfectly timed. Imagine walking past a store in a virtual environment, and the storefront showcases every product you’re likely to be interested in, drawing from your online shopping history. Or the NPCs (non-playable characters) that walk past you are sporting outfits that the user has shown interest in several times. Ads would be far more subtle and invasive. Your whole world could become a set of ads.
The biggest danger is simply the fact that a company that holds all this data and creating these personalized worlds for you have all the power. They can influence all sorts of opinions and change public perceptions with a few cleverly placed virtual environment influences. They could exploit psychological vulnerabilities and invade privacy.
So there’s not a simple answer to whether or not this is good or bad as it’s more a question of how people will use this new tech. But it’s worth having a continued discussion about it as this tech continues to develop in our lives.