Following up on yesterday’s examination of Google’s Search+, or Search Plus the World, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a little detour and address Search+ in relation to the so-called “Filter Bubble.” If your not familiar with this term, you’ll find a great introduction in this TEDx talk by Eli Pariser (provocatively titled “What Facebook and Google Are Hiding From You”), but in short, it’s the idea that as algorithms increasing shape our world and control what we see — from search results, to ads, to Facebook friends, and beyond — we run the risk of becoming more & more insulated from other points of view and fresh ideas. Rather than the Web providing us an amazing window into the rest of the world, we are instead only exposed to what Google, or Facebook, or whoever’s algorithms think we want to see.
It’s a valid concern as human curators — most notably journalists — are replaced by digital ones, and the increasing polarization seen in our country’s political discourse certainly offers strong circumstantial evidence that we are becoming dangerously insular.
What does this have to do with Search+? Well, if it takes off in a big way, it’s not hard to imagine searching for “who should I vote for?” or “is global warming real?” and seeing only results culled from the opinions of your friends. Sure, you can toggle it off, but that doesn’t mean you are truly de-personalizing your search results and, since it’s much easier to hear agreeing opinions rather than dissenting ones, there’s dangerously little incentive to do so.
That being said, I feel strongly that this is not the fault of Google or Facebook, or algorithms in general, nor is it their responsibility to combat the filter bubble. In Eli’s talk, he offers an example in which he compares the Google results seen by several different people searching for “Egypt” — one gets travel recommendations, while another gets coverage of the political crisis. In my opinion, Google is just doing its job — if you have been on Expedia all morning, of course you want travel recommendations! If you are from Egpyt, and say have a circle of politically active friends, then it follows that you’re more interested in news and analysis than flight deals.
Rather it is our own responsibility to better understand how the Web works and to pro-actively seek out diversity of opinion. If your Google+ circle is filled with people just like you, not only is your online life poor and one-dimensional, so too probably is your real life. If you’re done planning your vacation and want to learn about Egyptian politics, you need to know to go long-tail (see, this is about SEO after all!) and modify your search to “Egyptian political situation.” If your search for “is global warming real?” returns a full page of Fox News articles (or Huffington Post articles), you need to have the critical eye to understand that it is a single, carefully curated viewpoint — no different than, before the Web came along, the choice between your local newspaper, the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times.
The filter bubble is nothing new, and if you find yourself living in one, it’s your own damn fault.