What Aren’t You Seeing On The Internet?

What Aren't You Seeing On The InternetPersonalization has been the word of the day for a while now.  But is personalization really good or does it put us safely in a cocoon of information preventing us from seeing anything outside of our previous life experience and expanding our understanding?

I recently came across an ad-site for a relatively new search engine, DuckDuckGo.com.  The Ad-site, DontBubbleUs.us, talks about the filter bubble we are in when searching, primarily due to personalization.  I encourage you to check out the site.  I thought the ad-site was very well done and pretty hilarious.  It also got me thinking.

Personalization is Everywhere.
When I log onto Netflix, they recommend movies they think I will like based on my viewing history (which can be interesting since my wife and two year old daughter also watch shows on the same account).  When shop on Amazon, they recommend other products based on my purchase history and search history.  Everywhere I go Google Adsense tailors the ads to my search history.  (I’m still seeing ads for lawn mowers because I searched to buy a new lawn mower 3 months ago).

Possibly most importantly, search engines have been personalizing our search results for years.  Did you realize that?  The results you see are not the results other people see.  Sure, there are some common results, but based on your search history, click history, location, Facebook Likes, the people you follow in Twitter, and other factors, your results are not the same as other people, especially if you are logged in.

So, what effect does this have on us?

Politically, if a search engine thinks you are liberal, they will return more or all liberal sites in your searches.  The same will tend to be true if the search engines think you are conservative.  This would most likely will reinforce your beliefs instead of giving you alternative viewpoints to consider.

Personalization and Faith
Now, consider question within the context of our Christian faith.  If a person is a Muslim.  They’ll have Muslim friends on Facebook and Twitter, they’ll have a search history of searching for Muslim related information, they will have a click history of clicking on pro-Muslim websites.  What happens if they are out one day talking with a Christian acquaintance about God and decide there’s something different about Christians that they want to better understand.  So, they do a search.

Due to personalization, it’s entirely possible that the sites that come up in the search results will be more pro-Muslim and anti-Christian than pro-Christian.  This person may end up seeing several sites bashing Christianity and get a false picture of what Christianity is.


Bill Hutchison has been dealing with this topic from a slightly different perspective on his blog, BillHutchison.org and he’s shared a great message by Eli Periser at TED Talk which speaks very well to this point.  You can watch that message below:

Eli describes the problem very well, but in my opinion he doesn’t go far enough at the end.  He thinks that Google, Facebook and others need to embed in their algorithms some sort of ethical imperative which will make sure to mix in not only the things they think we would most likely click on, but civically important pages, opposing viewpoints, etc, and that they should give us at least some control.  The problem with that is who (or what) decides what that will be.  I can absolutely see that being abused, possibly without even intending to.   It seems to me that you have to give people not just some of the control, but all of it.

We are perfectly capable of tailoring a search to fit what we want.  If I want to see a local result, does Google really think I’m not capable of searching for “pizza in Tampa, FL” rather than just “pizza”?   Right now there are some things I can still turn off.  I found Instant Search to be irritating, so I turn it off.  In Facebook, I’ve changed my settings to show me all my friends posts.  It would be nice to do that with filtering in the search engines as well.  Then again, I guess it is…Hmmm, what was that other search engine again? :)

What do you think about personalization?  Is it a good thing?

Do you think search results should be personalized?

7 Responses to “What Aren’t You Seeing On The Internet?”

  1. We are having a similar discussion in our missions organisation with how personalisation is making it difficult for our smaller locations to recruit new missionaries. You have taken the logical jump that i hadn't yet it to interfaith searches.

    There is a great TED Talk that shows this in action that I've embeded in my article and I think really highlights your point, http://billhutchison.org/ywam-who-is-the-most-pop…. It might be worth embedding it at the end of your article…

    • Bill, Thanks for sharing your article and the video from TED. Eli did a fantastic job of describing the situation. I'll tell you what. The more this sinks in, the bigger an issue I think this is.

  2. Excellent post, Kurt! This is a really important, thought provoking ethical issue. I can see the potential that personalized results/recommendations could leave us in bubble of like-mindedness. There's good and bad in that. I'm definitely going to do some more thinking on this.

  3. Wow. Who new?! Thought provoking indeed! I don't like this at all. I love learning new things and hearing different ideas and opinions but that kinda makes it hard, huh? I think this is something people need to be aware of.

  4. Yes, I have noticed this and thought about it some. You have raised some additional great points. I particularly like the evangelistic angle. Hadn't thought of that.

    There is good an bad to the filtering you've described. One good, is that it can save time in certain instances and get me to the cream of the crop (those who've paid quite often). One bad, is I really do like to do my own searching and decision making in nearly all instances.

    It's a business decision for the global giants. If they start using the platforms to spin a belief system, then that is wrong. We will have to keep our eyes open for that one.

    • The question is would we even realize it if the global giants were spinning their belief system on us? Additionally, even if they aren't if they are, by virtue of the algorithm, limiting people from seeing true things just because the algorithm doesn't think they will like it, is that a big enough issue?

      It seems to me they could be a little more transparent about what they are doing and give people the option to turn off some or all of the filtering.