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Personal vs. personalized

Jerry —  November 5, 2012 — Leave a comment

Are you old enough to remember the first time you received something that was computer-personalized? For me it may have been a cover of Time Magazine with my name printed in it (I forget how; it wasn’t just the address block). Do you also remember how quickly the thrill wore off? Was there even a thrill?

Only four letters separate personal from personalized; the difference might seem semantic. But it’s a world of difference when it comes to service.

I’m all in favor of automated personalization, as long as it’s not manipulative. I love having things customized to my preferences. Dealing with merchants who remember you is far preferable to dealing with those that don’t.

But there’s something palpably inhuman about that automation. It doesn’t have the human, personal touch.

JP has been posting about how “the plural of personal is social,” starting with his fond memories of the stores and restaurants of his youth. His family patronized local small businesses, where they were known and welcomed.

I had similar experiences in my youth, but in Berlin instead of Calcutta. When I was 13, we lived with my grandparents on Uhlandstra├če in Berlin (yes, the Wall was up then). Often in the mornings I would follow Omi (my grandmother) as she made her rounds to the baker, the butcher, the dry-goods shop and the fruit and vegetable store. They all greeted her by name (in that formal German way, by last name). They were friendly, though not family.

It’s easy to get stuck in nostalgia or pine for things gone by. After all, big stores are more efficient, have wider selections (don’t they?) and charge less than Mom-and-Pop operations. You can’t do personal at scale, the logic goes.

We miss personal so much that large corporations keep trying to use personalization to emulate it, but that approach doesn’t work. The two are not the same at all.

I’ll dive into the role scale plays in a separate post.