In December of 2009, Google made an important change to its search functions that changed the Internet: it started personalizing and predicting everything for you. In The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser argues that though personalization has its perks, it also has its downsides: you’re all alone in your bubble, so you’re largely shielded from seeing things that might challenge your ideas and beliefs; the bubble is invisible and the agenda behind it is opaque; and you don’t choose to enter it–it’s happening automatically unbeknownst to most people.
To a certain extent, personalization has been going on for a long time now; companies like Pandora, Amazon, and Netflix have long thrived on correctly predicting things that their users will like. But Google’s shift in 2009 has had its share of consequences: it’s not as easy as it once was to fall down a rabbit hole of Google search results and stumble upon interesting links (this is especially obvious with Google’s image search functions); those are more likely to be filtered out now. And since it’s easy for Google to track a person’s online footprints (particularly if they use other Google services like Gmail), its also easier for companies to purchase your information and tailor their marketing so that it specifically targets your browsing interests.
As Pariser shows, Google isn’t the only one anxious to get ahead in the personalization game: the company is constantly going head-to-head with Facebook in a battle over who can hook the most people–and get the most information from them–with its products. Just as with Google, the filters it creates can have a negative impact. For example, if you “Like” something on Facebook, you’re more likely to see more of the same. This has consequences when it comes to major world events. Fewer people are going to “like” depressing stories about famine or the atrocities of war; as a result, less hard-hitting current events are going to pop up inside their filter bubbles.
Needless to say, it took me all of about five pages into the book to start feeling paranoid. I don’t own a Kindle, but I gulped when I came across this tidbit:
When you read books on your Kindle, the data about which phrases you highlight, which pages you turn, and whether you read straight or skip around are all fed back into Amazon’s servers and can be used to indicate which books you might like next.
Then couple of pages later, I came across this one:
If Google sees that I log on first from New York, then from San Francisco, then from New York again, it knows that I’m a bicoastal traveler and can adjust its results accordingly. By looking at whatever browser I use it can make some guesses about my age and even perhaps my politics…Even if you’re not logged in, Google is personalizing your search. The neighborhood–even the block–that you’re logging in from is available to Google, and it says a lot about who you are an what you’re interested in.
The Filter Bubble is fascinating, and anyone who uses the Internet regularly should read it. Maybe you won’t give up your Facebook or Gmail–personally, I can’t live without Google Docs–but at least you’ll be aware of what those companies’ goals are and how much you want to participate in their services.
PS: If you’re not going to read the book, at least do yourself a favor and 1) periodically erase the cookies on your computer, 2) periodically do searches on Google on really random things so that you have a little more room inside your bubble. But seriously, read the book.
The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You was released on May 12, 2011 by The Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin.