Should Google, Facebook and Others Be Filtering Our Searches?
In February 2011 Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think, gave a TED Talk in Long Beach, California addressing the concern presented in his book. Facebook will remove friends from your News Feed if it thinks you won’t like what you see. Google search results are tailored to browsing history and location, not the most objectively accurate results. This is problematic.
Google, Facebook and others are acting as “Informational Gatekeepers,” preventing a fundamentally important role of the internet… to expand our awareness beyond our current scope without censorship. The current algorithms in place are acting as electronic gatekeepers, confining us to a bubble by filtering out (personalizing) material that doesn’t coincide with our browsing behavior and scope. In some instances this is fantastic, in others it is very concerning.
So what is the internet hiding from you?
Well, Eli began his TED talk with an experience that was alarming to me. He discovered that Facebook had been filtering out posts made by his conservative friends from his News Feed. Instead of seeing a realtime update of all of his friends lives, he was only receiving information from friends that Facebook thought fell in line with his interests based on his browsing history. You see, Eli is a liberal, politically progressive individual and Facebook had noticed he clicked more on his liberal friends links and not so much on the one’s by conservative friends. Thus, Facebook’s intelligent serving algorithm ‘judiciously’ removed any ‘offending’ conservative material by striking it from his News Feed. As it turns out, Eli does want that information to show up on his feed and wasn’t pleased with this revelation.
Enhanced User Experience
Now, I can understand the probable reasoning behind this feature. It undoubtedly was designed to enhance the users experience. Facebook users have limited time and attention spans, so a think-tank at Facebook brainstormed the idea to maximize the exposure of posts users will actually enjoy by eliminating the clutter of the ones they won’t. Now many of us say, “What’s the problem?” Some of my friends didn’t see the problem either. I posted the TED Talk video along with my concern in a Facebook post and actually received some interesting feedback. Here’s what one of my friends jested:
well that just means on facebook i only see peoples posts about cute animals and music stuff, which is alright with me. no posts about politics, baby photos, or food pics of their ham sandwich theyre eating for dinner.
Okay, maybe I’m an idealist and Eli Pariser and myself are not quite the majority we thought we were. Regardless of popularity, I think it’s important to outline and educate the potential stagnation in the societal fabric these filters can cause. This article also presents updated responses to Mr. Pariser’s concerns by important internet authorities like Google’s Matt Cutts. It has been over two years since Pariser delivered his admonishing, controversial speech. Naturally, there have been changes that have taken place since then and as such we will look at this evolving topic in its most recent terms.
The Internet as a Tool For Personal Expansion and Human Evolution
Sounds lofty doesn’t it? When you think about it though, the statement is undeniably true. The internet or world wide web, as we know it today, is undoubtedly the most profound evolutionary catalyst mankind has been introduced to in centuries… perhaps in millenia… maybe even ever. It has brought information to us at the speed of light, giving us access to nearly anything we desire, instantaneously. The barriers to information and education have almost been completely erased. We can expand in knowledge to our hearts desire. As media platforms, information engines and social networks evolve, so do we. Its not only information barriers that are being destroyed but also social and cultural barriers. As we become more connected, we see that our similarities outweigh our differences and our capacity for understanding and compassion increases.
One of the most powerful abilities of the internet is its ability to expose its patrons to information they haven’t seen, allow them to witness a new way of doing something and to challenge preconceived notions by allowing them to digest different points of view. We need to be challenged with information we find uncomfortable. We need to expand beyond what’s directly in front of our faces. We need unfiltered truth, not bubbles of happy ignorance.
Matt Cutts, who is Google’s search engine’s quality control and user experience specialist, responded to these concerns (referring to it as “personalization”) by issuing the following statement in a Hacker News thread:
If I had to tackle the notion of over-personalization in ~5 minutes, I’d say:
- If someone prefers to search Google without personalization, add “&pws=0” (the “pws” stands for “personalized web search”) to the end of the Google search url to turn it off, or use the incognito version of Chrome. Personalization tends to be a nice relevance improvement overall, but it doesn’t trigger that much–when it launched, the impact was on the order of one search result above the fold for one in five search results.
- Personalization has much less impact than localization, which takes things like your IP address into account when determining the best search results. You can change localization by going to country-specific versions of Google (e.g. search for [bank] on google.co.uk vs. google.co.nz), or on google.com you can click “change location” on the left sidebar to enter a different city or zip code in the U.S.
- We do have algorithms in place designed specifically to promote variety in the results page. For example, you can imagine limiting the number of results returned from one single site to allow other results to show up instead. That helps with the diversity of the search results. When trying to find the best search results, we look at relevance, diversity, personalization, localization, as well as serendipity and try to find the best balance we can.
- I saw Eli Pariser’s talk at TED and was skeptical, although I did enjoy his example of Facebook starting to return only his liberal friends because he only ever clicked on the links his liberal friends shared. I had a number of concerns browsing through Pariser’s book, but I would encourage anyone interested in these issues to pick up a copy; it’s a thoughtful read.
A Helpful, Practical Response
This was a great, thoughtful response, that provides us the control that Eli Pariser passionately requested of Google. We can simply search for something in Google and add “&pws=0” (just the characters within the quotation marks) at the end of the search phrase. Voila! We have filter free results. No filter bubble. Give it a try. It’s interesting to see the different results. Take a look at the image in the upper right. I Googled something that naturally brings up a high amount of locally relevant content – “sandwich shops,” and did so with and without our little de-personalization trick. Alternatively, we can also achieve unfiltered, non-personalized results by searching within a Google Chrome incognito tab.
Fabulous. Now, we just need to spread awareness of Google’s filter bubble to others, along with the “quick fix” antidote that can be used when and where users find it appropriate.
A Zuckerberg Response?
Through my research I have not been able to find a response to this topic by Mark Zuckerberg or any other Facebook representative. I also have not found any control settings for personalization that would allow you to turn on, off or blend your personalized experience… at least in regards to the filtration taking place in our News Feeds. However, you can disable “Instant Personalization” with instructions from this article.
Facebook, you don’t know me!
Personally, I don’t want some algorithm to decide what people enter my world on Facebook. Facebook, you don’t know me! I want to see the good, the bad and the ugly. I want diversity. I want variety. I want to be occasionally uncomfortable, perturbed and annoyed. I don’t want to be confined to my past. I want to expand and evolve as I push onward into an unpredictable future. I demand growth and new memes, not predictable patterns and stagnation.
The complexity of a human being and what they want or need to experience cannot be accurately calculated and catered to with a string of code. At the very least, please allow the opportunity for us to opt out of our “personalized” experience. I appreciate what you’re trying to do for us but I’m not interested. Thanks.
Closing Statement on Personalization
For as much bad-mouthing and venom that I’ve aimed towards the filter-bubble personalization of our online search and social experiences, I do think that the underlying algorithms that fuel it are a great advancement in information technology and can serve us extraordinarily well when used in a balanced fashion. We all have benefited from and enjoyed the fruits of personalization algorithms. I think that Eli Pariser has accurately detected a viable threat to the integrity and evolutionary promise of the internet and has presented a compelling cautionary tale. So let us enjoy the benefits of tailored information but let’s not forget the importance of looking beyond our current scope and exposing ourselves to the unknown.