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Whose "My" is it Anyway?
Aug 10, 1998 :: Peter Merholz

One of the issues I've now had to tackle on two separate projects is how to refer to the user's 'stuff' on a Web site, the places they've customized or entered personal information. A simple "Address Book" or "Profile" are too cold and nondescript--you want to impart a sense of ownership as a way to distinguish it from the parts of the site the user cannot affect. The issue boils down to which possessive adjective works best, "Your" or "My"? While this distinction seems trivial on the surface, it actually gets at the core of our relationship with technology.

The portal craze has popularized the latter adjective, what with "My Yahoo!" and "My Excite." This trend toward "My" is ill-suited for a number of reasons. For starters, The "My Whatever" moniker is rather disingenuous. You don't actually own any space on Yahoo! or Netscape, nor can you claim any of the information served up. All you've done is the online equivalent of setting presets on your stereo.

"My" also presents the potential for substantial confusion. Let's say I'm interacting with a widget-selling site. And I have a personal area on the site, and it's called, "My Account". Then the system, when referring to me, must call me "I" and "My," which is weird, because, well, it's odd when reflexive possessive adjectives are used and you're not in control (or should that be, "and I'm not in control"?) Also, if I need to talk to The System for some reason (say, send email to the people who run it), how do I refer to it? Usually it's "Contact Us", but if I am "My", than "Us" would be me as well, so that leaves "You" for The System, so it would be something like "Contact You" and, well, that's weird, too.

As I'd been mulling over this piece, I came across an article in Salon by Ellen Ullman, where she excoriates the infantilization demonstrated by Windows95 (and NT, and 98) referring to "My Computer," providing thus another reason to avoid that adjective:

"My Computer. I've always hated this icon -- its insulting, infantilizing tone. Even if you change the name, the damage is done: It's how you've been encouraged to think of the system. My Computer. My Documents. Baby names. My world, mine, mine, mine."

Think about it. What products, in the real world, use the possessive "My" in their names? Products for small children, like "My First Sony." How foolish would it sound, say, to buy something called "My Telephone" or "My VCR". Obviously, they're yours--you own it! Using "My" on a Web site encourages this childish sense of propriety, a propriety which, as was pointed out earlier, is already unfounded.

This condescension is born of the desire to make people comfortable with a potentially overwhelming technology. However, by babying users and not educating them to how our systems work, we only perpetuate this lack of true understanding. Use "Your" when referring to the personalized area for a Web site. Leave "My" for the inner dialog of tortured junior high first person narratives.

The Brand PeterMe, also known as Peter Merholz, is a "web designer" residing in San Francisco, working for Phoenix-Pop Productions, and engaging in various forms of Web punditry.



Other pieces about personalization: