Isn’t the internet great? It puts you in the driving seat of what you can read, watch and listen to, right? Wrong. Our Technology Guru, Ben Good, exposes the shadowy way the web is becoming increasingly ‘personalised’. Whether you like it or not, your world is becoming increasingly small..
To say someone is living in a bubble has many different meanings and connotations. It might prompt thoughts of someone ignoring reality or images of someone with Severe Combined Immune Deficiency syndrome forcing them to live in a germ free ‘bubble’ (as in the particularly bad Jake Gyllenhaal film Bubble Boy).
Take heed, because the concept of living in a bubble now has a new meaning. It has come to refer to the way in which websites are automatically ‘personalising’ our view of the internet and are secretly isolating us…
As the internet has evolved, we users have uploaded everincreasing numbers of photos, videos and personal details. Many of us are worried about what all this information might be used for, e.g. large corporations targeting us with advertising, governments intent on spying on us or scam artists wanting to steal our identity. These concerns are – to varying degrees – valid, but one way our information is being used right now is to alter our individual experience whilst surfing the web.
Goodbye Web 2.0 – enter Web Personalisation!
There is a simple way to test how much your internet experience is being personalised. All you need is a friend. Both of you need to google the exact same word or phrase (on your own computers) – you could try searching Technology Guru!
Try this and there is a very good chance you will both get different search results.
Google gathers all of its information about you to try and help personalise your searches. Your results are filtered depending on the internet browser you are using, the type of computer you are on and where you live. In total, there are apparently 57 different criteria that Google uses based on the data it has accumulated about you.
It might not be initially obvious how this personalisation could be a problem. Here’s one reason: you – the user – have no control and no knowledge of what filtering is actually taking place. You have no idea what information is being kept from you. Google is trying to make browsing more friendly and comfortable but, to butcher a Rolling Stones lyric, sometimes it’s important to see what you need, not what you want!
A good example of this automated filtering process was described by Eli Pariser, internet campaigner and author, in his latest book The Filter Bubble. Pariser asked two of his friends to do the Google search test as described above. He asked them both to search with the word Egypt. Here’s what happened:
One of his friends received a page containing lots of information about the democracy protests which were occurring at the time, whilst the other was served up with no information about the Arab Spring uprisings.
It is hard for anyone – regardless of political beliefs – to deny that Google was withholding important information from Daniel. However, Google aren’t the only ones engaging in such personalisation tactics. Facebook is another major culprit – specifically in its news feed. If you are a Facebook user, count how many ‘friends’ you have on Facebook. Now consider how many actually appear on your news feed. It quickly becomes very apparent that you are not being shown what all of your friends are doing – your news is being filtered.
Like Google, Facebook monitors your behaviour: who you interact with most with; the links you click on – and it then filters your screen so that you only see news from these people. Facebook has been lauded as a fantastic tool to stay in contact with new, old and distant friends (and rightly so). But it therefore seems somewhat unfair that ‘censorship’ of our friends is occurring. Although under the control of computer algorithms, no one likes to be told with whom they can and can’t be friends.
Thankfully, if you fiddle with your Facebook settings, there is an option for it to turn filtering off. When I selected this option, I immediately noticed how my newsfeed changed: It instantly became a richer source of social news. I even saw updates from friends who were now living in other countries who I hadn’t realised had left!
Don’t get me wrong, I am not an anti-internet technophobe; I have always believed that one of the main strengths of the internet is its ability to make life simpler. However, now is the time for a more important driving force – openness.
The internet’s creators could have patented the HTML code that governs it and they would have profited billions. However, they didn’t, they chose to share it. Since then the internet has allowed huge crowd-sourced projects like Wikipedia; made open-access science publishing model possible, and given publications like Guru a platform which would never have been possible in a pre-internet age. With such great results from this ethos of openness, I find it worrying that these unseen filters are potentially closing the internet and isolating us.
Take a moment to take a look around at what you read and view on the internet right now: is the whole picture being hidden from you? Is your internet experience being redacted? If so, then maybe it’s time to open yourself up to the whole of the information superhighway again. No one likes to live in a bubble, whether it’s one of ignorance, medical isolation or the screening of a bad film. So why not take a pin to the settings of your favourite websites and burst that bubble! You might just be surprised by what you find…
- Want a depersonalisation detox? The Filter Bubble website offers you ten steps on how to unfilter your internet experience.