Beware Of The Personalized Web

Beware Of The Personalized Web

Information is power and there is no real argument against that. We have shifted from an information scarce society to one of information excess. This shift has its challenges and we are still trying to come up with the best way to manage them. The internet is a beautiful thing, it knocks down knowledge barriers and levels the information playing field. It was not too long ago that I wrote about the issues surrounding net neutrality and believe me, the issues still stand, however, I am now troubled by another, less discrete herding of information; the personalized web.

Many of us have come to enjoy web 2.0 and the fruits of a more “effective, personalized” web experience. With its suggested YouTube videos, Facebook Ads, Google searches, and many other instances, our web activity is tracked in order to customize our results thus creating our own unique internet. By default (which can easily be changed through settings), Facebook aggregates your news feed by selecting and taking information from the friends you engage with the most. Have you realized that some of your Facebook friends have begun to”disappear” from your home page? This is just one example of what the personalized web means; it is a reflection of what we want to hear and see. Avoiding the enormous issues of data privacy and web tracking all together, we must begin to understand what the personalized web experience means, especially when regarding not only the short term effects but also the long term ones.

The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser Briefly describing and understanding the short term benefits, we have to consider the often, unintended long term consequences. The issues of net neutrality and the exclusivity of the personalized web only differ by the gatekeepers. Though both ultimately controlled by companies, the latter is done through consent of the user. Many have heard the cautionary tales of groupthink and of narrow perspectives. As individuals and groups, we need counter arguments and perspectives to not only secure our own beliefs but to challenge them. Looking at only part of the story is still a distortion of the truth, we have to take it upon ourselves to leave our comfortable ideologies and force ourselves to try to understand the counter argument.

The personalized web, with it’s highly selective Facebook feeds, suggested YouTube videos, and even varying Google search results, is ultimately distorting the story and information by not only hiding what is out there but at the same time keeping it away from us. The truth is, we rarely get to personally decided what gets let in and more importantly what is left out. Essentially, as Eli Pariser, author of “The Filter Bubble,” put it, “you need your information veggies as well as your information deserts, you can’t just live on one.”

Our transition to a culture of information excess is still not properly understood and while we champion the initial purpose and use of the social web, we must be ready to look at the secondary and unintended effects. The information companies, like Facebook and Google, who help facilitate the aggregation of the personalized web, have a major responsibility. Pariser says, “We are passing the torch from human information gatekeepers to robotic, algorithmic ones,” and unfortunately our current algorithms don’t have the moral compass like our human gatekeepers do;” regardless if they use it well or not. While some companies’ business strategies revolve around the customization of online information, the question arises, when will the “personalized web” line be drawn? Or has it already been crossed?

-Dan

“You can’t have a proper democracy if citizens dont get the proper flow of information” – Eli Pariser 

P.S. Enjoy Eli Pariser’s TED talk on the dangers of the personalized web here. It’s a quick and fantastic speech.

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