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Social Media and the Filter Bubble

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I first saw this video a few years ago and thought it was the stuff of Faked Moon Landings and other conspiracy theories.  It’s true that Google was, and still is, the most powerful search engine whose results are at the mercy of the code written by the faceless programmers at the Googleplex. I always assumed that their goal was to give me relevant results for what I wanted, whether it be the latest news out of a foreign country or the name of that one extra that looked familiar in the latest blockbuster hit.

It never occurred to me that Facebook, Google and other search engines would manipulate their results to give me what they thought I wanted to see until I saw this video:

Eli Pariser‘s TED talk made me think twice about depending on search engines for relevant data.  What if I’m not getting the entire picture while researching a person, place, event, or topic that I’m writing a story about? What if Twitter or Facebook are hindering my attempts to mine data with search engines that are returning the results they think I should see instead of what I need to find?

This hidden optimization gives people what they want and automatically weeds out what the algorithm thinks they won’t care about.  It’s great for people who want to save time, but a huge problem for people who need all the data and don’t mind sifting through some white noise to find the pieces they need for a project.  It’s a great idea on paper, but it raises a lot of big questions if you can’t shut it off or get around it when you need to see all the results, even if they aren’t normally relevant to your interests.

Thankfully, Pariser offers up some solutions on his website The Filter Bubble.  He offers up ten solutions to liberate you from the tracking and data gathering that Facebook, Google, other search engines and advertisers use to follow you around the internet.  I spent most of the day working on the big ten, but it will take a couple of days before I see real results as I tweak my habits and optimize my privacy strategy.

The largest hurdle to overcome is finding a way to keep cookies from being saved on your computer.  They offer up a lot of information about your habits, which makes them bad to allow if you want to be secretive, but a lot of websites, like Facebook, require cookies to be shared if you want to use their services; you can’t win.  I’ve done minimal surfing since obliterating the cookies, but my browser tells me I already have over 100 cookies with 21 from Google as the top offender.  There must be a better way to keep these things from hanging around.

Unfortunately, there’s no perfect way to stay anonymous on the internet so that you are free to gather all data on your pieces, relevant or not.  The secret workings of search engines to provide a truly personal experience are nice touches, but they hinder the idea that the internet is a place where all knowledge is freely accessible to everyone.  It’s not accessible if you can’t see it and the companies are unlikely to stop until enough people make it clear that they’d rather deal with the hassle of sorting the wheat from the chaff instead of letting an automated program hold up a certain point of view to their face and call it a balanced look at the world.

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Written by Christopher Siler

2011/06/19 at 09:59

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