The Bad and The Good of Filtering Information

Should we be concerned about what we’re not being exposed to on the Internet?

The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You is a new book that raises the issue, focusing on the potential negative effect of the way websites including Google, Facebook, and Netflix use personalization engines to filter information.

Author Eli Pariser, in an interview posted on Amazon, says the issue is not that personalization isn’t valuable in directing appropriate information to individuals, but that increasingly personalized sites use your web history to “filter information to show you the stuff they think you want to see. That can be very different from what everyone else sees – or from what we need to see.” Pariser adds, “You don’t know who they think you are or on what basis they’re showing you what they’re showing. And as a result, you don’t really have any sense of what’s getting edited out – or, in fact, that things are being edited out at all.”

Pariser uses several examples on his book’s blog to demonstrate his argument. He shows Google search results for the word “Egypt” as executed by two different users. For Scott, two of the top five results include stories about Egyptian protests. For Daniel, the top five results include nothing about the protests but instead, focus on travel to Egypt. Pariser says the differences are based on what Google knows about each of the users.

Pariser’s primary concern, it seems, is that an individual is getting a one-sided story. In his book, he writes that “personalization filters serve up a kind of invisible auto-propaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.”

Proponents of personalization engines may scoff at Pariser’s argument; after all, if the individual receives what he’s really looking for, saving time and effort by filtering out what he doesn’t want, why is that a bad thing? Supporters would likely say that personalization exists because more and more web users are demanding a customized experience.

It isn’t all or nothing, either. In a review of the book for The New York Times, Evgeny Morozov writes, “For all their sins, Google and Facebook do allow users to turn off most of their filters and return to the unpersonalized Web in a matter of seconds, something ‘The Filter Bubble’ inexplicably doesn’t mention.”

Pariser also says in the Amazon interview that commercialization “has triggered a personal information gold rush, in which the major companies – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and the like – are competing to create the most comprehensive portrait of each of us to drive personalized products. There’s also a whole ‘behavior market’ opening up in which every action you take online – every mouse click, every form entry – can be sold as a commodity.”

Sure, we need to be concerned about the wholesale marketing of personal information, especially if it oversteps the boundaries of one’s privacy. In that respect, I think some of Pariser’s argument has merit. But I also believe that if facilitating technologies like personalization weren’t available, it might be next to impossible to find anything of relevance on the Internet.

It could be a problem when people unwittingly build a box around themselves with the help of personalization engines, but I think they already do that by watching a cable television network or reading a newspaper that slants the news without presenting an objective opposing view.

Maybe the real problem isn’t the Internet at all, but rather an entire media world that is increasingly subjective – and media consumers who are willing to accept it.

About Barry Silverstein

Barry Silverstein is a freelance writer/marketing consultant. In addition to writing for ReveNews, he is a contributing writer to, the world’s leading online branding forum. He is the author of three marketing books, The Breakaway Brand (co-author, McGraw-Hill, 2005), Business-to-Business Internet Marketing (Maximum Press, 2003) and Internet Marketing for Technology Companies (Maximum Press, 2003). Barry ran his own Internet and direct marketing agency for twenty years. You can find Barry on Twitter @bdsilv.

6 Responses to The Bad and The Good of Filtering Information

  1. I think it’s not right that they filter anything! We should hear and see everything no matter how bad it is.

  2. Pat Grady says:

    information volume is staggering.  while filtering does shape our view (aka danger), i think the need for it is necessary now, and more so as time passes.  whoever does the filtering, needs to continually earn our trust.  the geopolitical ramifications are astounding.  of course, looking back, there were very few parties controlling information before, so this isn’t new, just more complex.  and perhaps, less understood.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    Primary corner of information to filtering with watching a cable to television and generating a suspect of the best company data objectives. Most comprehensive with negative suspects to do it.

  5. We should hear the truth no matter how bad or good it is!

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