The Web is as vast and as unending as our ability to create new content, if not knowledge (be mindful of the distinction). That is, almost by definition, as unending as things get, and it can be overwhelming, to put things mildly. As such, many Web services have done their best to personalize their presentations to our individual tastes. In doing so, they are causing us far more harm than good. Click to keep reading. You need to.
Today’s Web is ruled by algorithms that analyze our online behavior to present us with content tailored specifically to us. I remember the first time I really noticed this was back in 2005 when I was browsing Amazon.com for new music. I had been listening to a lot of indie groups—Modest Mouse, Spoon, and Elliott spring immediately to mind. As I was browsing I noticed Amazon making suggestions based on these past purchases. That’s how I discovered Arcade Fire and their debut album Funeral which has received heavy rotation on both my iPod and car stereo for years. Even now, it’s one of my all-time favorite albums. Pretty cool service, right?
That was spot-on as far as machine-generated suggestions go. It’s a feature that Amazon and every other Web retailer interested in making money continues today. It’s easy to become enamored with automated suggestions and rely on them entirely when you’re shopping online. They usually do a good job. But automated suggestions also limit us, perhaps even trap us.
I notice the same thing happening when I watch Netflix or Hulu. When I first started using these services I already knew what I enjoyed and made my selections accordingly. Now Netflix on my Roku 3 has row after row of “You watched this, try these” or “You like this type of movie, what about these?” Yes, I’m being exposed to movies and TV shows I might not have known about otherwise, and it’s a feature I appreciate. Yet, if my future viewing experience were to be informed entirely by what I've already watched, would I truly be discovering anything new? Would a steady diet of Star Trek, Archer, and Lost reruns generate an automated recommendation for Paul Newman’s Nobody’s Fool or Henry Fonda’s Mister Roberts, two of my favorite movies? I’m thinking, no.
Personalized entertainment recommendations don’t upset me nearly as much as personalized Web search results. Since 2009, Google has been serving personalized search results to users both with and without a Google account. It keeps track of what you have searched for in the past and uses those interests as well as the links you have clicked on as a basis for more accurate search results.
The problem here is that the technology powering the search is only so smart. It’s like Microsoft Word’s grammar check. MS Word isn’t context-aware. Consequently, many of the grammar corrections it recommends are dead wrong.
Google suffers a similar flaw. Its personalization is too dumb to take into account potentially relevant or interesting information that doesn’t match with what we’ve been searching for in the past. This leads to inaccurate, incomplete, or polarized search results that ultimately do more to harm public awareness than to expand it. It may seem useful as a means to narrow our results so that we spend less time clicking, and it can be. Google knows that I do a lot of searching for answers to computer problems and can be very useful in finding answers more suited to my needs.
That same personalization is going to do an equal amount of harm if I am, say, a high school student researching for a debate on a controversial topic like abortion. Depending on the political and religious views reflected by previous searches, I’m going to get some seriously one-sided results that leave me ill-prepared in a debate with my opponent.
Let’s get even more serious. Maybe I’m someone who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Despite my physician’s advice to the contrary, I’m doing research online into how other patients with this condition have coped with it. Personalized results, however they are calculated by Google, can lead me to inaccurate and potentially deadly information.
Personalization pitfalls extend far beyond search results. Let’s talk about the news. Do you watch the nightly news on one of the major networks or subject yourself to 24-hour news? Read a newspaper? Listen to the radio? In an age of persistent information glut, we have a wide range of news sources. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, but nevertheless vital we pay attention to some professional news source.
Sadly, a Pew Center study on television news viewership indicates a steadily declining audience. There are occasional peaks, but it’s mostly long declining slopes these days. What about printed news? According to StateoftheMedia.org, the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, pretty much all the numbers are down, particularly in the ad revenue that powers most newspapers. A 2012 report on Businessweek.com also shows that revenue is hardly being made up for online, as newspapers lost “$10 in print advertising revenue last year for every $1 they gained online.”
Slowly crumbling are the news empires of yore as they scramble to formulate new ways to engage younger audiences and to monetize their products. So where are we getting our news from these days? Let’s talk about Google again. Google News is a convenient way to get up-to-date news from a variety of sources, but it’s not a good way. My personal politics tend to be more liberal, and thanks to a “liberal” use of Google News in the past, the news fed to me by their algorithms reflects those views. This filters out news from more conservative sources that could challenge and expand my understanding of current events. Just because I may not agree with a particular view does not mean that I should remain ignorant of and insensitive to it. But there’s just so much news out there, and Google is merely doing its algorithmic best to not “waste my time” with news and opinions that don’t match my current world view. Not that my world view is likely to change much if I let Google News continue spoon-feeding me.
A much larger offender is Facebook. According to Journalism.org, 64% of U.S. adults are on Facebook, with 50% of them using it to consume news (though, it should be noted, not necessarily Facebook alone). That amounts to 30% of adults in the U.S. getting news via Facebook.
This is a huge problem. Facebook is not a news aggregator and should not be treated as such. It doesn’t present you with links to every story being broadcast from all the news sources you follow. There are basically two ways to get your news via Facebook. The first, and probably the most prominent way, is through your friends who can share stories which are then perhaps posted to your Facebook wall. The second is by “Liking” news sources on Facebook. Liking a source, such as The Free Lance-Star or The Washington Post, will allow you to receive some of the stories posted on Facebook by those sources.
Notice I write “some” stories. Herein lies the problem. Facebook is most certainly not in the news business. Facebook is in the “you” business. Facebook builds profiles of us based on our likes, our friends, our tastes in entertainment, our political and religious views, and our numerous posts. Mark Zuckerberg probably knows you better than you do! Facebook uses these profiles to best serve us advertisements and content that individuals and organizations have paid to promote. Facebook doesn’t care that you get all the latest and most important headlines. Facebook cares only about clicks and the money clicks generate. Facebook does its utmost to tailor content and advertisements that it believes you will click on. They’re darn good at it, too.
All of this is to say that when you look at your Facebook, you’re not seeing “the world” in the sense of the idealized early-1990s notion of the Web. All you see when you look at Facebook is yourself. You’re not getting the news you need. You’re getting the “news” that best matches you as a consumer. It’s like viewing the world through a cocktail straw.
This blog post is heavily informed by the book titled The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You, by Eli Pariser. It is an exceptionally informative and surprisingly approachable book that will reveal a great deal more about this issue than this blog can hope to cover. As a denizen of the modern and personalized Web, you owe it to yourself to read it. You can also check it out in our OverDrive ebook collection.
Pariser also has a Web site you should visit, thefilterbubble.com, and a great list of 10 Things You Can Do to pop yourself out of your bubble. You should also take ten minutes to watch his TED Talk which I’ve embedded below. It is, in a word, brilliant.
Another practical step you can take is to switch search engines and start using DuckDuckGo.com. It doesn’t track you, try to identify you, or trap you in a filter bubble. It is the first serious competitor to Google that I’ve seen in a long time.
The Web is facing all sorts of challenges these days. State-mandated filtering and censorship, threats to net neutrality, government surveillance, cyber crime, and much more are making this an interesting decade to live in. There is only so much we have control over, but we can start by taking the necessary steps to expose ourselves to the real Web and not stay trapped in the world created for us. A bespoke Web is no one's friend.