My step-daughter Meg just moved in with us, as opposed to visiting 3-4 weekends a month the way she previously did.
The Netflix Problem
Simultaneously, she's discovered that you can stream TV shows and watch them on the PS3 (which she calls "the DVD player" in honor of what it's mainly used for). She does this via my Netflix account.
She's a good kid and we have pretty strict rules for how much she can do this. The problem, which I hadn't realized at the time, is that she's using my account and happily rating her favorite shows.
Netflix now thinks I really really like Spongebob Squarepants. I mean, Really Really like it.
In fact, Netflix also thinks I really like 3:10 to Yuma, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Beverly Hills Cop II and The Bank Job. None of which I've ever seen. I'm pretty sure Meg hasn't seen 3:10 to Yuma, either. Of the 380 ratings in the Netflix DB, I probably rated 50 of them. See... Netflix accounts are nominally personal accounts, but our whole family is sharing a single account. We go through 2-3 DVDs a month, so it's not worthwhile for us to have separate ones.
Ratings are entered based on personal opinion, but they're being applied to make a sort of composite rating for our whole family. That just doesn't work. If it didn't think we'd already rated it a 5, it'd be recommending Basic Instinct for Meg. When it recommends things for Val and I to watch late at night, it will be incorporating the tastes of a 10 year old, and when it recommends things for her on Saturday morning, it'll be at least partly targetting a 35 year old with a taste for Sci-Fi. Our recommended viewing lists look like the product of advanced multiple personality disorder, and the person who watches the most (hint: she's still the shortest person in the house) is coming to dominate them.
The Bigger Problem
As websites tailor more and more things for the individual user, they need to be very very careful to distinguish between individuals and customers. Individuals have opinions. Customers pay for things. Our household has 3 individuals (not counting the cats, who have very distinct opinions, too). For Netflix, right now, we are just one customer.
I see this all over. Working at MMO companies, there was always the notion of the family account. An arrangement where one person could pay for several others to play. You wanted a parent to be able to control the account that did the billing, but let the youngsters log into their own accounts. Trying to distinguish a family from a bunch of gold farmers could tie fraud control into knots. For guilds, you wanted people to be able to pay for their guildmates play time. That sounds similar to a family, but it isn't - I might want to re-up your subscription so you can make this raid, but you don't want me to be able to change your password.
If you leave a laptop sitting out in the living room, people will pick it up and surf the web. Google will handily try to auto-complete search terms for you. It's probably best not to use that laptop to search for "coming out", "reform schools", "how to make a bong" or "cheap gifts for dad" (depending on your personal circumstances). Google doesn't know that searches are done by different individuals. Google just sees the same web browser coming back.
There's no easy solution, no wizz-bang change that will make everything better.
As individuals, we have to be mindful of what identity they are using. This requires work and new habits. We didn't even think about it when we start streaming Netflix to the PS3, but we'd already done it a bit on the Mac Mini media box. We have separate accounts for each family member and we're all diligent about switching to our account before we use it.
We can't do this on our own. System designers have to let us do this.
Just letting us have multiple accounts isn't enough, though. We need to be reminded of our current identity and it has to be easy to change. Mac OS X does a great job of this - you can have your name showing in the menu bar (so you're aware of your identity) and switching to another account is really easy. More systems should emulate that.
Netflix is much more typical. The setup for the PS3 was very simple, but I sure haven't seen a way to associate a single console with multiple accounts. No quick menu for changing accounts. To untangle this, we may have to get a separate Netflix account for Meg and set it up to stream to the Wii.
That'll get Netflix an extra $9/mo from this customer. That might seem like a win to them, but it's really a loss. A big part of their appeal is the recommendation system. By encouraging us to use a single account, they're encouraging us to pollute their recommendations database. The person who liked "Chappelle's Show" is not the person who liked "Dora the Explorer".
As long as we keep sharing computers or accounts, this will be a problem. The only way to mitigate it is to make it easy for us to tell you who we are. Let me set up a list of family members and swap between them quickly. Let us customize things a little based on who we are, so we have an incentive to do it. Switching identities has to be really easy or we won't do it. Even having to log out and log back in is probably too much for something like Netflix ratings or search customization.
This goes for any business that's trying to make decisions based on customer behaviour. If you can't differentiate customers from individuals, you can't make good decisions. Whether your business is playing games or recommending restuarants, if you can't figure out who you're talking to you're probably sunk. The companies that get it right will have a huge advantage. And for heaven's sake, don't encourage users to share accounts. Arrangements like Netflix's actually encourage us to ruin not only Netflix's database but our own experience.