So, first off, you need to watch Eli Pariser’s TED Talk about “The Filter Bubble.” It’s getting a lot of traffic and discussion.
Okay. Disturbed? I am.
Human beings have a hard enough time agreeing on the basic facts of any given situation. We don’t need more impediments in the way of our shared perception of reality. In spite of the fact that more people have greater access to more information and interaction online today, I think most people would agree the United States is more polarized (particularly political rhetoric) than it has been in some time (and some research even says we’re less informed).
This issue was debated on “This Week in Google” (TWIG – Episode 95) and the participants (Leo Laporte, Jeff Jarvis and Gina Trapani) all fell on the side of believing that Google’s filtering by user is a good thing and that people will still run across information and views that challenge their perception. They cited interactions with family and friends on Facebook as their replacement source for contrary views to their own. As much as it pains me, I must vehemently disagree with my idols.
Facebook filters too. Facebook does not provide the average user with the contrary views of their friends and family; quite the contrary it filters out opposing views and challenging content based on one’s viewing habits.
I found this out the hard way after reading about the new filtering options on Mashable. I had thought my conservative friends had unfriended me or blocked me (I delight in debate; it’s changed my views, increased my tolerance for complexity and made me a better person), and I’ve actually made conservative friends through other friends on Facebook after discussing the issues of the day on their Facebook posts.
It turns out that I just wasn’t seeing their posts and they likely weren’t seeing mine. Discussion was being stifled because, unknown to us, Facebook was distorting our view of the world by removing dissention from our news feeds.
My proposal: what this new phenomenon needs is some empirical study.
Some enterprising graduate or doctoral student should see if they could work with Google and conduct an experiment to measure how much contrary content is consumed by people using an UNFILTERED version of Google vs. a FILTERED version of Google. After consuming filtered Google feeds, those people should be given some sort of assessment of their familiarity or awareness of of current events and/or society in general and see how they compare to the general public.
I hypothesize that Google’s filtering will REDUCE our overall awareness of the world around us.
If my hypothesis is true, I would love it if Google responded to this in the amazing ways only Google can. They should create an “Aspirational Search” option that users can turn on/off at their leisure.
The Aspirational Search option (as I envision it) could be based on what Google knows about us through monitoring our web traffic and also perhaps with a simple survey we could each fill out that identifies what kinds of information and sources we would like to see in order to challenge ourselves.