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[personal profile] jrtom
This has been making the rounds recently:


The basic premise is that the information that you see on the web is becoming more personalized all the time:

these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us -- what I've come to call a filter bubble -- which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information

and this is problematic for the following reasons:

(1) "You're the only person in your bubble. In an age when shared information is the bedrock of shared experience, the filter bubble is a centrifugal force, pulling us apart."

(2) "The filter bubble is invisible...Google's agenda is opaque. Google doesn't tell you who it thinks you are, or why it's showing you the results you're seeing. You don't know if its assumptions about you are right or wrong -- and you might not even know it's making assumptions about you in the first place."

(3) "You don't choose to enter the bubble...personalized filters...come to you".

Google is not the only organization that comes under fire in this article--Facebook and Amazon also are mentioned--but Google is mentioned most prominently and consistently, presumably because it is the entity through which many people derive most of their information.

I'll start off by saying that much as I think that Google is cool, I hope that it never gets a monopoly on providing search results. It's important that there be viable choices--four or five good ones is a good start--for this service. We can make mistakes, and we won't always do the best job with every kind of information retrieval task. And if there's just one option, it makes it much more feasible for organizations to get access to information that they shouldn't (IMO). Defense in depth, memetic diversity, and all that--these things are critical to the healthy functioning of society.

I've also made specific proposals at work to suggest that we do some random perturbations of our search results in situations where our ranking algorithm doesn't really differentiate much, score-wise, between results, precisely to give our results a bit more diversity when it doesn't cost us anything (as far as we can tell).

All that said, I don't think that Mr. Pariser has really either (a) thought this through all the way nor (b) done his homework, at least so far as Google is concerned.

Before I respond to his specific points above, I'll point out that personalization is an incredibly useful approach to making any tool more useful, and search engines are no exception. If Google can determine that when I search for "latex" I am looking for information on typesetting rather than rubber fetishwear, so much the better. There's a universe of information out there and I don't have time to drink the whole thing. By all means, please do your best to give me the most relevant stuff.

Responding to his points in order:

(1) This is ridiculous. It's like saying that I am the only one who occupies this particular location in space-time and therefore I am isolated. Even if we suppose that I am the only person that has my particular combination of traits that Google measures, there are millions of people out there whose characteristics overlap strongly with mine. It's even stronger than that: customizing my information flow to my interests can help me discover people and communities and information to which I have existing implicit affinities that I might never have been able to run across otherwise.

(2) Dude. Do a search on "how to turn off personalized search". This will give you information on both how to do this and how to find out what kinds of factors are involved in personalization. This is not a new topic.
Could we be surfacing this better? Probably. But we do have to make some decisions about what information to give prominence to, or the search page gets incredibly cluttered. But the process (essentially, click on "view customizations" at the bottom of your search) is not difficult.

(3) There is some justice to this claim: I believe that search personalization is the default and while one can opt out, I don't know that we tell you up front when you create a Google Account that your results will be personalized.

That said: Google is not, and does not aspire to be, the _source_ of all information. We don't, for the most part, create content. We curate it, organize it, and try to make it accessible and useful. You, as a sentient being, are responsible for managing your inputs. We may decide that if you search for "rainforests" that you're more interested in organizations that want to preserve them unchanged than in organizations that want to extract the maximal resources from them at minimal cost, but nothing prevents you, or should, from searching for "rainforest preservation" or "rainforest resource extraction" instead. I don't really think that it's Google's job to help you break out of your rut.


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May 2011

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