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What the Internet Isn't Telling You

Personalization is narrowing our world view rather than widening it, activist says.

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. And the Internet is killing it.

So says political activist and author Eli Pariser, who worries that the youthful promise of the Internet to widen people's worlds is turning into the exact opposite.

As search engines and Web sites seek to deliver what you want, your world is becoming narrower and narrower, defined by what you click on, who you message, where you live, what kind of computer you use.

What's worse, most people are unaware it's happening, says Pariser, who is speaking to the Monday night.

Haven't heard from some of your Facebook friends lately? It could be they're not posting, but more likely is that Facebook's algorithms have determined you're not that interested in them and blocked their posts from your news feed. You can change that setting, but by default Facebook filters them out.

Google, too, bases its search results on what it knows about you. You and your neighbor can search on the same term and view completely different results.

On the one hand this kind of personalization can be a good thing. At Facebook they want you always interested in what you see on your news feed so you'll spend more time on the site. Toward that end they don't want your feed cluttered up with the views of people you don't really care about, so they filter it for you.

At Google it's all about delivering the search results you're looking for. If their search-engine algorithm knows a bit about what kind of person you are it can do a better job of delivering what's relevant to you.

But the better that search engines and websites get at delivering what you're looking for, the less likely that you'll make a serendipitous discovery of something you weren't looking for, something that might broaden your world view. Pariser, who has written a book about the subject, says we're increasingly surrounded by “information junk food.”

“We need to make sure that they show us things that are uncomfortable or challenging or important,” he told a crowd in Long Beach earlier this year for an annual Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference.

Pariser, who is president of the liberal political action group MoveOn.org, worries that we as voters, for instance, are increasingly exposed only to the things we want to hear.

His book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, says that instead of us being exposed to a variety of views, Internet filters are creating a bubble in which we are exposed only to things within our comfort zone.

Pariser believes Internet filters should be more visible to users, and users should have some control over how they work.

“We really need the Internet to be that thing that we all dreamed of it being,” Pariser said at the TED conference. “We need it to connect us all together.

“We need it to introduce us to new ideas and new people and different perspectives, and it's not going to do that if it leaves us all isolated in a web of one.”

Mike Smith May 23, 2011 at 07:18 PM
I try to have situational awareness when I look for info online. Some search results let you know up front you are viewing advertising. I also use Wikipedia a lot because it is advertising free. When I'm on Facebook I have disabled all of the games and most other Facebook apps. Some stuff is really none of face books business. I also have multiple news apps on my ipad2 so I can cross check information and see other points of view.
Kapkao June 07, 2011 at 01:25 AM
“We need to make sure that they show us things that are uncomfortable or challenging or important,” Unwanted content, is still unwanted content. And even if some of it gets (forceful?) exposure to a noninterested party, the best result one could hope for is either a complete dismissal and a click on something unrelated, or a temporary distraction for a few minutes. The "uncomfortable" content quickly gets viewed as "junk food", an attitude that is reinforced by friends with similar views and interests.

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