What the Internet is Hiding from You
- Friday, 16 September 2011
With East Africa facing its worst drought in 60 years, I wince more than ever at a quote by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg: “A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”
What Zuckerberg’s assertion means on a societal level—such as during a regional famine overseas—is the topic of the video below. It features a speech by Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, and executive director of MoveOn.Org, the liberal group that was perhaps the first to turn the Web into a tool for massive political action.
Pariser makes an interesting point here as he discusses the unintended consequences of web companies tailoring search results to our personal tastes.
“[Personalization] moves us very quickly toward a world in which the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see but not necessarily what we need to see.”
The stated goal is to make it easier for Web users to find the things online that they like. (And, of course, to make it easier for advertisers to hawk things to you that you're more likely to buy). But the end result, Pariser says, is a silent, subtle bubble that isolates users from new discoveries and insights that may fall outside of their usual tastes and interests.
One of the things that's really interesting about the filter bubble is that it's invisible. You can't see how your Internet, the websites you visit, are different than what other people see. They are sort of slipping further and further apart.
A couple of years ago, when you Googled something, everyone would get the same result. Now, when I've done these experiments, you can really get these dramatically different results. One person Googles and sees a lot of news about protests and the other person gets travel agents talking about traveling to Egypt.
I'm basically trying to make visible this sort of membrane of personalized filters that surround us wherever we go online, and let's see what we see.
Eric Schmidt [of Google] recognizes it; ‘It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them,’” he says.
Bad for Humanity - Bad for Democracy
All of this is fairly harmless when information about consumer products is filtered into and out of your personal universe. But when personalization affects not just what you buy but how you think, different issues arise. Democracy depends on the citizen’s ability to engage with multiple viewpoints; the Internet limits such engagement when it offers up only information that reflects your already established point of view. While it’s sometimes convenient to see only what you want to see, it’s critical at other times that you see things that you don’t.
It's one thing when you turn on MSNBC or Fox News. When you do that, you know what the editing rule is -- what kind of things you'd expect to see there and what kind of things you'd expect to be edited out. But with a Facebook news feed or Google News, you don't know who they think you are. You don't know what's been edited out. It can really distort your view of the world.
Sometimes the unexpected, serendipitous articles or discoveries are some of the very best moments when you learn about some whole new process or way of thinking or topic.
It's sad if we lose that, just so a few companies can get more ad clicks.
Source: the New York Times and CNN