The Bad and The Good of Filtering Information
Should we be concerned about what weâ€™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 isnâ€™t valuable in directing appropriate information to individuals, but that increasingly personalized sites use your web history to â€œfilter information to show you the stuff they think you want to see. That can be very different from what everyone else sees â€“ or from what we need to see.â€ Pariser adds, â€œYou donâ€™t know who they think you are or on what basis theyâ€™re showing you what theyâ€™re showing. And as a result, you donâ€™t really have any sense of whatâ€™s getting edited out â€“ or, in fact, that things are being edited out at all.â€
Pariser uses several examples on his bookâ€™s blog to demonstrate his argument. He shows Google search results for the word â€œEgyptâ€ 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.
Pariserâ€™s primary concern, it seems, is that an individual is getting a one-sided story. In his book, he writes that â€œpersonalization 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.â€
Proponents of personalization engines may scoff at Pariserâ€™s argument; after all, if the individual receives what heâ€™s really looking for, saving time and effort by filtering out what he doesnâ€™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 isnâ€™t all or nothing, either. In a review of the book for The New York Times, Evgeny Morozov writes, â€œFor 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 â€˜The Filter Bubbleâ€™ inexplicably doesnâ€™t mention.â€
Pariser also says in the Amazon interview that commercialization â€œhas triggered a personal information gold rush, in which the major companies â€“ Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and the like â€“ are competing to create the most comprehensive portrait of each of us to drive personalized products. Thereâ€™s also a whole â€˜behavior marketâ€™ opening up in which every action you take online â€“ every mouse click, every form entry â€“ can be sold as a commodity.â€
Sure, we need to be concerned about the wholesale marketing of personal information, especially if it oversteps the boundaries of oneâ€™s privacy. In that respect, I think some of Pariserâ€™s argument has merit. But I also believe that if facilitating technologies like personalization werenâ€™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 isnâ€™t the Internet at all, but rather an entire media world that is increasingly subjective â€“ and media consumers who are willing to accept it.