Isn’t it wonderful that you can search for something on your browser, or smartphone, and have the perfect result displayed there right at the top? No poking around, no digging, just the exact thing you were looking for every time.
Talk about a timesaver. It’s like having your best friend around 24/7.
But this might not be as great as it seems. Like anything, the increasing personalization of the web does have its drawbacks. None of us wants to spend hours searching for a recent news story, or a random fact to show our friends, but when personalization begins to form our opinions for us, it’s something we need to examine further.
Below we dive into what Internet personalization actually is and the far reaching effects it may have on our digital and physical lives.
The Rise of The Algorithms
Photo credit: Ilya Pavlov
A lot of us assume that when we Google something, we see the same results as the next person. But, this isn’t the case. Google’s algorithms display different search results depending on the your browsing history, location and any other data you’ve shared.
The days of a standard search results page are over. It seems that our quest for uncovering unbiased information, or even interacting online, is being hampered by algorithms. Even Google CEO Eric Schmidt says, “It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not been tailored for them.”
Something about that just doesn’t sit right.
Instead of being fed the “best” information, we end up receiving the information that’s best for us, which means information and news that matches our existing opinions. Our online worlds are currently being crafted by algorithms that may, or may not, have our best interests in mind.
Rise of the machines, anyone?
The Downsides of a Personalized Internet
Photo credit: Marc Chouinard
Think of your computer like a mirror. It watches everything you do and reflects back this information in an algorithm, which tailors your experience to match the reflection. This seems quite nice, but we’re failing to consider the true potential of the Internet. At one point, it seemed the Internet would be a great democratic force.
Only now are we starting to see this isn’t quite the case. An open Internet would give us equal access to information, not information that’s been skewed based upon past preferences. Instead of being forced to grow and see outside our our bubbles of perception and belief, we’re pushed further into them. Open and democratic thinking requires the ability to see both sides of the issue to make an informed decision.
Instead of breaking down walls, they’re only being built higher around us.
Take this example:
You spend a lot of time on Facebook, and you regularly click on links that your more liberal-leaning friends post. Over time, the posts of your more conservative friends will become filtered out and you’ll only see posts from friends who reinforce your opinion.
No matter your political beliefs, there’s something dangerous about this situation. Currently, nearly half of U.S. adults get their news from their Facebook news feed. This is probably based on the assumption that you’re being fed news from a wide variety of sources. Instead, you’re consuming a curated view of the world that’s designed to keep you as exactly the same person you are at this moment in time.
The same thing can be rightly said for Google and people who use it for an information and news source. You’re only being fed the information that confirms your existing beliefs, not challenges them.
Welcome to life in an echo chamber.
Can’t Personalization Be a Good Thing?
Photo credit: Benjamin Child
At first glance, this may seem like a very good thing. A personalized Internet makes great promises.
For instance, it can allow us to live in a world where everything fits us perfectly. We’re always entertained and never bored. Whatever we consume online is a perfect reflection of our interests and it’s a very cozy world to live in.
A personalized web does provide you with a better overall user experience, meaning you don’t have to struggle to find the things you’re looking for, and on occasion it seems like the Internet might be “reading your mind”. All of this does lead to an easier existence where we can save ourselves minutes a day tracking down relevant news and information.
But, with this ease of life we end up sacrificing a lot of things. Instead of the Internet being a force that unites people of different perspectives and backgrounds it ends up creating a world where we all exist comfortably in our own little bubbles.
Sure, this comfort might be nice. But, it’s a far cry from the potential of the Internet and this interconnected world in which we live.
What are your thoughts on the personalized web? Is it causing a more isolating world, or is it actually bringing us together? Share your thoughts in the comments below.