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By Greg Kandankulam
Search Engines and Social Media are integral parts of my life and probably yours, especially if you are reading this blog on one of your various devices. We have been told, for the better part of a decade, that search engines and social media networks are the gateway to truth and that we are living in the “information renaissance”. We have access to unprecedented amounts of data and topics that will expand our knowledge of our next door neighbor, the Revolutionary War and the best Black Friday deals. It is all yours for the taking. We have the promise of perfect information in the neoclassical sense of the term.
Eli Pariser, the internet activist, would tell you that you are mistaken. In the last few years, these tools have been optimized to give you what you will find the most attractive to click on. He would tell you that personalization has crept into the social media feeds and searches you read. This means that where you live, the content of the searches and feeds you have viewed in the past and many other criteria, determine the content that you will be shown in the future. It is these search algorithms that decide for you what is relevant. He goes on to state that these algorithms have no ethical boundaries while it markets and presents content.
The implication of this is that if you are the type of person who is consumed with “infotainment”, the pop sugar of the day, you will not be directed to content that will expand your personal horizons and take you out of your comfort zone. Unfortunately, that sounds like making sure the uninformed stay uninformed. There are those that say the problem is not as bad Mr. Pariser says and that filter bubbles are not as insidious as he as perceives it. Yahoo! has stated that personalization algorithms have helped increase click through rates to its Today box 270% since personalization algorithms were instituted in 2009. However, the company says it reserves the ability to hit an override button and force important news to all users, even if the algorithms say the feed will get low click through. This still sounds like a lot of power in the hands of a few individuals.
So this seems like a large systemic issue, but since we are living in the era that the most interesting person this year is the protester, this is my suggestion. First get the word out, to everyone you know, about the issues with personalization in social network news feeds and search engines. Blog, tweet and status update about it. Second, let’s assume that Search Engine Optimization and Personalization algorithms are here to stay in their present form for a little while. How do you deal with this? Balance your behavior online. If Google gives you what it thinks you want, make it think that everything interest you. Expand your social footprint online and consume content that your peers and acquaintances share that you may not have, historically, had interest in. It’s time to get even more involved in your social networks and talk about new interests in your tweets and updates. Let’s game the system a bit so that, in Eli Pariser’s words, you not only get what you want, but you get what you need.