Hijacking Your Filter Bubble

August 12, 2011

Search engines are not encyclopedias. They are not reference desks at libraries.

They don’t give you the right answer.  They give you an answer.

And the answer they give you is not the same answer they give me.

The same query produces different results for different people, intentionally.

Companies from Google to Facebook to AOL constantly adjust what you see and when you see it. This filtering is done in the name of relevance, speed and convenience. As a way to be more responsive to your perceived needs.

Google, for instance, uses as many as 57 of your personal attributes (according to Eli Pariser in video below) to determine what you might be interested in when you search.  This includes characteristics that have apparent relevance, such as your search history, to more obscure data such as what type of computer you are using, what browser you are using and where you are located.

Floating each of us squarely inside our own personal filter bubble.

The content we see is filtered (or more kindly – curated) electronically. That means there is lots of relevant content these electronic algorithms exclude from us.

Why does this matter?

When you search for something online, even if 42,000,000 results are returned, those results not all-inclusive. The number of results returned is no reflection of the quality of the results. Just knowing that means you might want to use several different paths to find the information you need and not rely on a single source.

Better data is the foundation of a better decision.  And this data should include different viewpoints, alternatives or controversial perspectives – now typically eliminated by the filters.

Instead, the content you are are served fits squarely in your personal bubble. Might reinforce your already held beliefs. Might make you feel good. Won’t help you with your decision.

Many times when I am looking for something online – I don’t exactly what I am looking for.  A search starts down one road and leads to an entirely unexpected place.  Sometimes that place is magical or at least surprising.  Other times it is a dead-end.  But, more often than not, I learn something that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t get a wide variety of options instead of an ultra thin slice.

And then there is the inconvenience of a very personal query remembered  and shared eternally with advertisers long after you forgot you actually did the search… and you being served content as a result of this search.

By the way, if you use the Firefox browser – there is a really cool tool to help you visualize who is tracking you and at what sites, called collusion. This may help you see the astounding number of companies who watch and share your moves around the internet.

What’s a viewser to do?

  • The vast majority will probably want to do… nothing. Things work well enough for them. They might even consider signing up with one of the websites that reward personal interaction monitoring.
  • Those who find all this tracking and suggesting an unwanted intrusion might consider using a variety of networks for their social media, search and shopping needs -  instead of relying on one, as well as consider using different personas on each to ensure access to a wide variety of offerings.
  • Remember to be literate about consuming your media. Even so called augmented reality offerings.  Think of the context in which content is presented. Like free TV, it is all designed and served to you with advertising and marketing in mind.
  • Treat everything you do online as though it can be seen be everyone. In the entire world. And it has eternal consequences. Really. Think about what you ask and what you put out there. This includes texting, messaging, emails and even encrypted communications transmitted via the cloud.

Of course, all this literacy won’t help if your search is out-and-out hijacked by over-zealous profit maximizers!

For millions who use certain ISPs – Internet Service Providers – that is exactly what happened to them this past week.

They typed in a search term — and instead of getting results, as they would have expected – they were hijacked to a “related” destination – courtesy of marketers who paid a premium to direct traffic to that particular site. As if every time you typed in TV – you went directly to Channel 4.

If you can’t trust those who provide you access to the internet – the ISP – who can you trust?

Glad there were some actual journalists still on some payroll somewhere who uncovered this practice and brought it to light.

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