The size of Texas — the case for micropersonalisation

I’ve been thinking a lot about personalisation in journalism lately. Here’s another discussion starter:

I’ve already argued why serving content based on who the user is might not be the smartest idea and why publishers should rather think about the different contexts their users are in when accessing their content.

Now, there is a type of personalisation that could indeed make use of knowing who is at the other end of the device. I’d like to call it micropersonalisation, a way to help people better understand stories.

The idea is this: When reporting on unfamiliar places, concepts and ideas, journalists often use comparisons as a frame of reference. A desert is «the size of Texas», a new airports costs «the equivalent of Zambia’s GDP», a city has a population «larger than Switzerland’s», a bridge is «longer than the distance from Hamburg to Hannover».

Reading through these examples, you will have noticed that some make more sense to you, give you a better understanding of the actual value. And that’s the point. Why use the same comparison for all users?

What if we could tell an American that an area is «the size of Texas», a European that it is «larger than France» and an African «the size of Somalia»?

What if we could compare a city’s population to that of the city or country the user lives in?

As more and more publications address a global audience, there’s growing potential in such micropersonalisation. Geography would be an obvious first try as input variable. Knowing where a user is from makes for a fairly good predictor of what s/he is familiar with.

In practice, it would work something like this: The editor marks a number in the story for which comparisons should be rendered. An algorithm takes the user’s location (for starters, this could be as rough as continents) and pulls the suitable comparisons from the newsroom’s comparisons database.

Would make for a nice little experiment, wouldn’t it?

[As a side-note: If you want to collect user data, telling them you do so «to serve you more interesting ads» is probably not as convincing as telling them: «We use your data to help you better understand the news».]

Originally published at

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