Bursting the internet filter bubble

Did you know that in 2009, Google introduced personalized search, a concept in which your search results are customized for you based on various algorithms that Google uses to compose a profile of who you are.  In essence, gone are the days where everyone receives the same results in the same order when they search on common keywords.  Your results are now unique to you.

Google systematically tracks, amongst other things, where you are located, what you search, what sites you select (that’s right – none of your searches are anonymous or forgotten) and will even track the order of your searches to determine if there is any relationship between two searches.  Are you embarrassed to ask your doctor about that funny rash, but comfortable to Google it?  You should know that you have more privacy and anonymity asking your doctor than searching Google for the answers.

Google is to put it crassly a data whore – collecting, storing, analyzing and manipulating data on all of us that use their product (and let’s face it, who doesn’t use Google?).  Conceivably, personalization is the biggest change that has happened in search engines and has become a nearly invisible revolution in how we consume information.

In some ways, this is quite convenient.  If you are looking for a great Chinese restaurant to visit, Google will bring to the top of your search results all the Chinese restaurants in your area.  No longer will you waste time wading through unrelated results; Google has filtered the results dependent on your location.  And that webpage you visit on a regular basis but haven’t bookmarked yet?  Each time you search for it, Google brings that site to the top of your search results – pretty convenient.

But what if you are searching for a balanced viewpoint on a certain topic?  That is, you want both positive and negative results to read and review.  Suddenly, with personalized view, Google now only shows you the results that mirror your viewpoint based on past search history.  Put another way, if you have conservative views, you will continue to receive search results that are conservative in nature; the liberal viewpoints get pushed down in the search results or never get shown at all.  We become encapsulated in a filter bubble.  Your search results are no longer balanced in perspective.  Author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is hiding from you, Eli Pariser notes: “Personalization creates an information determinism – what you clicked on in the past determines what you will see next; a sort of web history you are doomed to repeat.”

How to minimize the filter bubble

So what’s a person to do?  In order to avoid the filter bubble, you could use an alternative search engine such as DuckDuckGo (DDG) www.duckduckgo.com which claims to not track your searches.

Check out http://donttrack.us/ and http://dontbubble.us/ as these sites provide explanations of how DDG differs from Google and other algorithm collecting search engines.

Here are a few other suggestions:

  • Burn your cookies (not the chocolate chip kind but the kind that get stored on your computer and track the identifying features of your computer).
  • Erase your web history often (both from your browser and from Google); much of the personalization is based on your past searches and selections.
  • Ensure you are in private browsing mode on your web browser (InPrivate browsing in Internet Explorer, Incognito mode in Google Chrome and Private Browsing in Modzilla FireFox).
  • Use alternative search engines like DuckDuckGo which claim they provide private search functionality.
  • Be aware!  Ignorance feeds the filter bubble. Why give all your personal data and control over to corporate entities?

Let’s face it: personalization is here to stay. In fact, within the next three to five years, the idea of a web site that isn’t customized to a particular user will seem quaint (as noted by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg).  And, it should be noted that Google is not the only company that uses personalization: the entire business model of Amazon and Netflix is based on the concept of personalization.  Bing and Yahoo search engines also use personalization.  The key is to ensure a balance of views and opinions so we don’t end up consuming only information junk food and ignoring the content vegetables.


2 thoughts on “Bursting the internet filter bubble

  1. Thanks, Liz. I’ve been explaining to students the dangers of Google’s customization, but hadn’t been able to give them more advice than to switch up their search engines. I’ll be adding this to my tool kit.

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