Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Bias of the Internet

Sheep just follow uncritically. You shouldn't. CC licensed by Fredrik Questier.  

If you are looking for a certain place, i.e. a park, in a new town, likelihood is that you wil ask someone you meet on the street where you should go to get there. Say that the person, let's call her Sahara, would give you different answers based on your appearance, clothing or presumed interests.

If Sahara thought you looked fit, she may tell you a longer route than she would tell an overweight person as she figured you would be up for the extra excercise (or she might do the opposite to help the heavier person burn some calories). If she recognized your clothing as expensive, she might tell you to go to the posh restaurant on the opposite side of the park instead of to the more interesting sculptures on the other side. Or if you were carrying a backpack she'd rather send you to the cheap but dodgy hostel nearby the park.

After all, it should be straight forward. You are asking how to get to the park. Why can't she just tell you, and everyone else that asks, the one and only fastest way to the entrance?

Well, Sahara acts just like an increasingly number of websites, including Google, Facebook, Bing and Yahoo. They automatically personalize the info you get to see based on your behaviour. And they don't ask whether you like this practice or not, they just do it because they think that they are helping. Just like Sahara did, although she was just guessing. The websites do actually know a lot about your previous surfing behaviour. Some people would say that they are indeed helping. Eli Pariser would not, as he tells The Independent newspaper.

- The technology that was used to target ads is now being used to target content. It's one thing being shown products you might be interested in, but when that's shaping what information you see, it has a much broader effect. My main concerns are that it gives individuals a distorted view of the world because they don't know this filtering is happening or on what basis it's happening, and therefore they don't know what they're not seeing. It's a problem, more broadly, for democracy because it's like auto-propaganda. It indoctrinates us with our own beliefs and makes it less likely that we'll run into opposing viewpoints or ideas.

The Independent didn't decide to talk to him for no reason. He has written a book about the issue: 'The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You.'

More and more websites try to help you by giving you information that they believe you'll be interested in. They call it personalization. I'd say this can be a very bad thing in many settings. It may certainly benefit you to hear about the kind of films that certain of your friends have recommended or commented on as you "always" like the same films as they do. But what happens to your own opinions if everything you are being served is shaped by someone else to an even greater degree than before?

Films may be an innocent example. How about when it comes to news, politics or other more serious issues?Neutrality is lost, and you are influenced more strongly than before based on previous behaviour and what your friends on Facebook or Twitter say or do.

You can certainly argue that this filtering is already happening. After all, people buy our watch certain newspapers and TV programmes based on their preferences. But two persons buying the same paper will at least be presented the same information in the same manner and in the same order. With the Internet, this is no longer necessarily the case.

This is, if nothing else, something that is worth being aware of. You may furthermore not want to base your information gathering and opinion shaping exclusively on the internet. Because what comes up there may be very biased indeed. You are not a sheep, don't act like one. Not even if Sahara tells you to.

'The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You' by Eli Pariser was published by Viking in Britain earlier this week.