Did you know that if you and I searched for the exact same thing on Google right now we would probably get different results? We could be googling literally side by side and still get significantly different websites appear on our search results page. Why is that? Ted speaker Eli Pariser says that this has to do with online “filter bubbles” and it is affecting each and everyone of us whether we agree with it or not. What are online filter bubbles?
Online filter bubbles are caused by algorithms. Okay that was no help, so what’s an algorithm? An algorithm is a set of rules, a formula, used to determine the answer to a question. Whenever you search for something on a search engine such as Google, it takes into consideration a whole bunch of things about your situation and then tailors your search results for you. That tailored personalised search result is your online “filter bubble.” Doesn’t sound so bad so far.
What’s the formula?
No one truly knows what the gGoogle algorithms are in its entirety, but things such as past search history and location are big factors. This makes sense. If I am searching for a vegan lunch place I would want to be presented with relevant search results. Showing me to-die-for Vegan restaurants in New York City would be pointless and plain cruel. Basing my current search results on my past Google searches also seems logical, as it would be like Google knowing the bigger picture of what I am looking for, kind of like an online concierge, What If I don’t sign into my Google account?
You would assume that by logging out of Google you would be presented with the standard Google that doesn’t know your search history, but here’s the thing – there is no standard Google. It’s an illusion. It doesn’t exist.
In his Ted talk Eli said that it doesn’t matter if you are not actually logged into Google as there are still 51 signals tha the t Google algorithm uses to personalise your search results. Even the computer that you are using could determine what results you get.
What about other search engines?
Google is not the only search engine to offer tailored search results, most search engines do this, even social media platforms such as Facebook. Have you noticed in the past year or so that some of your Facebook friends who used to be rather chatty have suddenly gone quiet? It could be that they haven’t gone quiet but the Facebook algorithm has decided that this chatty Kathy is no longer relevant to you, so doesn’t show you their Facebook posts anymore. What made the Facebook algorithm decide this on your behalf? Well, even if you chuckled at chatty Kathy’s funny posts or got envious of her foodie photos, if you never actually engaged with the posts by liking or commenting or you haven’t checked out Kathy’s profile page, then you have accidentally sent the Facebook algorithm a passive aggressive message to get chatty Kathy off your newsfeed.
Why does this matter?
By casting a very small and specific search net we are being cut off from other potential game changing search results. Our search bubbles are limited to what computer algorithms think we want to see. Do these algorithms now how multi-dimensional and often contradictory humans are?
There’s a very real risk that we are being cut off from new ideas and new perspectives and are just living within this self-contained search filter bubble. I don’t just want to see what’s relevant to me – I want to be challenged to new ideas. I don’t want to close off any doors. The real issue in all of this, is that we have no idea of what’s being let into our search filter and what’s being left out. The internet has always been branded as this space to connect with people from all around the world and be connected to new ideas and new possibilities, but how can we do that if algorithms are curating the information. Do these algorithms know that this process of curation needs to have a foundation of civic responsibility ingrained into it. Eli ends his Ted talk by thanking Facebook and Google for helping to build the web, but also asks them to help make these search filters more transparent so that we can control what information we choose to receive and what information we shut out. Eli says that this is what it will take to connect us all together and not leave us isolated in a web of one.
If you haven’t watched Eli’s Ted talk I would highly reconmended doing so as it is an eye opener to the world of online curation. What do you think about online “filter bubbles”