When I saw Eli Pariser TED presentation on has come up with a concept called the “The Filter Bubble,” I was reminded of the old Outer Limits television show and their opening sequence: “We are controlling the transmission… We will control all that you see and hear…”
What Pariser points out is that your Internet experience is being monitored and, more importantly, managed. Okay, this isn’t really news. If you have a subscription to Netflix or shop on eBay or Amazon you know that they have built algorithms into their systems to offer suggestions based on past shopping patterns and preferences. That actually seems, well, helpful. However, what Pariser points out is that by controlling what is delivered online, we are actually creating islands of Web experience that insulate us from other areas of the Web that may challenge our thinking or desires. Apparently, with the help of search bots and search algorithms, we are all creating our own gated communities of web experience where the online vendors and search providers are serving as the gatekeepers.
For example, it never occurred to me that Google, Yahoo, and other search engines are tailoring search results based on what they know about me. Apparently the search results are filtered based on IP address (work or home), computer you are using, time of day, and other criteria. Okay, I expect that from advertisers, since microtargeting consumers is not particularly new. However, I am appalled that my search results are being filtered to provide a more personalized and thereby insular experience.
I was fascinated by the example Pariser offered to prove his point. He had two friends search Google for the term “Egypt,” and one friend retrieved the latest political news while the other retrieved vacation and travel information. Huh? You mean web search is not a neutral playing field? You mean when I look for online information I will get data customized by some robot based on what it “thinks” I am looking for?
Pariser is correct in his assessment that this kind of controlled experience is dangerous. We need to be challenged regarding our world view and we need to be able to share opposing viewpoints. I know my liberal spouse has spirited debates with her conservative compatriots on Facebook, but everyone appreciates the dialogue. What happens when those conversations get filtered out because those conversing are not “like minded”? Then we all lose. The Web should be used to promote the open exchange of information and understanding – that’s what Tim Berners-Lee envisioned.
More importantly, Pariser’s observation’s demonstrate that you can’t rely on the web for objectivity. It is not a neutral news source, and the organizations that are promoting the news are for-profit, which means they are tailoring their data to keep you coming back as a user and potential customer. As Pariser notes in his presentation, in the past we have had editors as watchdogs of journalistic standards, to help promote informational integrity and promote fair reporting and access to information. With the free-for-all of the web, bloggers are now being treated like journalists but they are not held to the same standards, and now apparently the webbots are acting as news editors and determining whether we should receive the facts according to the New York Times or Page Six.
I, for one, like to make my own determinations based on all the available data; not just the information some computer algorithm thinks I might find interesting. How about you?