BY ARMAAN ROWTHER
Welcome to the Information Age. Brace yourself and prepare to be informed by 900,000 blog posts, 50 million tweets, 60 million Facebook status updates, and 210 billion e-mails that are injected into the electronic ether called the Internet, every single day. As your focus flickers across cyberspace, from Google search results to YouTube videos, finding those precious gems of information that are important—or even remotely relevant—can become an impossible task.
But don’t worry, because the information age has increasingly become a ‘personalization age,’ as website are continuously tailoring themselves to… you! According to Eli Parisor’s The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, the race by top Internet sites to collect individual data and thereby personalize the online experience is now defining the battle for Internet giants like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft.
It all began in December 2009, when Google began customizing search results to users based on fifty-seven different “signals”—from the location where you log-in to what you had previously searched for—all in an attempt to guess who you are, what you like, and what pages you are most likely to click on. While your Google search for “Egypt” may yield news of revolution and pictures of protests, your friend may first be directed to travel sites and tour guides.
The implications of this trend potentially extend far beyond mere convenience for users and profits from ad sales. In the words of media theorist Marshall McLuhan, “we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” Our online experience is changing how we consume media and, as Parisor argues, may be shaping what we know and even how our democracy functions.
This is because the ‘personal data’ collected by data-laden cookies and tracking beacons can range from your taste in music to your political leanings. So then, how would your Google search for “global warming” compare with that of your friend? Or how about “affirmative action”? The result is your own unique information universe, where you receive news that not only conforms to your interests but also confirms your beliefs, all without you asking.
From techno-optimists in the 1990s to political analysts during the Arab Spring, many have looked hopefully toward the Internet to re-democratize the world through a new era of transparency. But if your past preferences determine what you are exposed to in the future, how much space will remain for the democratic exchange of ideas? How often will you be confronted with news and perspectives that challenge you when your online existence is confined to a personalized bubble?
Of course, to some extent, we already consume media that appeals to us and ignore most of everything else, creating our own bubbles. Whether Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, old or young, you can find a cable channel or online news source that caters to you.
However, when you watch Fox News or MSNBC, you make an active decision about your source of information. In other words, you have the ability to choose and be aware of the tinted lens through which you make sense of the world. But in the case of a personalized Internet experience, you are alone in your invisible bubble and, most importantly, you don’t choose to enter it.
As observed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg, “a squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” So yes, personalization means you may never be bored or annoyed as your computer becomes a mirror of your immediate interests and the Internet an echo chamber of your personal opinions. But with the world literally at our fingertips, is this truly what we are all seeking?
ARMAAN ROWTHER is a third year Public Health Policy and Biological Sciences double major at UC Irvine