A healthy information diet

Dear Reader,

A lot of our postings here on diablog are what I call “water cooler stuff”. We like to provide you with interesting information about things, you might talk about during your coffee break or at the water cooler. Interesting things, but not world news.

At the same time, we are for a free flow of information, freedom of speech and staying informed. We are against censorship. A couple of diablog posts dealt with censorship, like this one and this here.

One issue of censorship we have not discussed here, although Glynsky, Pete and I did in private:


Almost all websites personalize what you see.
Your browser tells the website a bit about your computer, where you came from, your language, your software, your approximate location, etc. Then the website and its content is shown in accordance. Most websites give you a cookie, a small file to recognize you, when you come back.
All that is for convenience.

But there is a down side to this.

Here is a link to a book, “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You“, that describes the issue. Let me quote a few things from an editorial interview with the author (bold highlight by me):

Q: What is a “Filter Bubble”?

A: We’re used to thinking of the Internet like an enormous library, with services like Google providing a universal map. But that’s no longer really the case. Sites from Google and Facebook to Yahoo News and the New York Times are now increasingly personalized – based on your web history, they filter information to show you the stuff they think you want to see. That can be very different from what everyone else sees – or from what we need to see.
Your filter bubble is this unique, personal universe of information created just for you by this array of personalizing filters. It’s invisible and it’s becoming more and more difficult to escape.

Q: I like the idea that websites might show me information relevant to my interests—it can be overwhelming how much information is available I already only watch TV shows and listen to radio programs that are known to have my same political leaning. What’s so bad about this?

A: It’s true: We’ve always selected information sources that accord with our own views. But one of the creepy things about the filter bubble is that we’re not really doing the selecting. When you turn on Fox News or MSNBC, you have a sense of what their editorial sensibility is: Fox isn’t going to show many stories that portray Obama in a good light, and MSNBC isn’t going to the ones that portray him badly. Personalized filters are a different story: You don’t know who they think you are or on what basis they’re showing you what they’re showing. And as a result, you don’t really have any sense of what’s getting edited out – or, in fact, that things are being edited out at all.

Q: What is the Internet hiding from me?

A: As Google engineer Jonathan McPhie explained to me, it’s different for every person – and in fact, even Google doesn’t totally know how it plays out on an individual level. At an aggregate level, they can see that people are clicking more. But they can’t predict how each individual’s information environment is altered.
In general, the things that are most likely to get edited out are the things you’re least likely to click on. Sometimes, this can be a real service – if you never read articles about sports, why should a newspaper put a football story on your front page? But apply the same logic to, say, stories about foreign policy, and a problem starts to emerge. Some things, like homelessness or genocide, aren’t highly clickable but are highly important.
Q: Does this issue of personalization impact my privacy or jeopardize my identity at all?  
A: Research psychologists have known for a while that the media you consume shapes your identity. So when the media you consume is also shaped by your identity, you can slip into a weird feedback loop. A lot of people see a simple version of this on Facebook: You idly click on an old classmate, Facebook reads that as a friendship, and pretty soon you’re seeing every one of John or Sue’s posts.
Gone awry, personalization can create compulsive media – media targeted to appeal to your personal psychological weak spots. You can find yourself eating the equivalent of information junk food instead of having a more balanced information diet.

Q: Is there any way to avoid this personalization? What if I’m not logged into a site?

A: Even if you’re not logged into Google, for example, an engineer told me there are 57 signals that the site uses to figure out who you are: whether you’re on a Mac or PC or iPad, where you’re located when you’re Googling, etc. And in the near future, it’ll be possible to “fingerprint” unique devices, so that sites can tell which individual computer you’re using. That’s why erasing your browser cookies is at best a partial solution – it only partially limits the information available to personalizers.
What we really need is for the companies that power the filter bubble to take responsibility for the immense power they now have – the power to determine what we see and don’t see, what we know and don’t know. We need them to make sure we continue to have access to public discourse and a view of the common good. A world based solely on things we “Like” is a very incomplete world.
I’m optimistic that they can. It’s worth remembering that newspapers weren’t always informed by a sense of journalistic ethics. They existed for centuries without it. It was only when critics like Walter Lippman began to point out how important they were that the newspapers began to change. And while journalistic ethics aren’t perfect, because of them we have been better informed over the last century. We need algorithmic ethics to guide us through the next.

Q: What are the business leaders at Google and Facebook and Yahoo saying about their responsibilities?

A: To be honest, they’re frustratingly coy. They tend to frame the trend in the passive tense: Google’s Eric Schmidt recently said “It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them,” rather than “Google is making it very hard…” Mark Zuckerberg perfectly summed up the tension in personalization when he said “A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” But he refuses to engage with what that means at a societal level – especially for the people in Africa.

What can you do?

First, erase cookies. And do so often.

Second, use other search engines when looking for information, like www.ixquick.com. Wikipedia has a list of search engines, try some. You might be amazed to see new stuff.

Third, keep an open mind, inform yourself broadly. Don’t get lazy. Look for controversy, not just confirmation.

Stay sharp,
Engine Room

2 thoughts on “A healthy information diet

  1. Somewhat after Pete (who obviously reads faster than me) I also add my praise.
    I can’t help but feel that you are too cautious/paranoid, but the argument is difficult to ignore.
    Good stuff ER, you are light years ahead of the other old fart and me, but then we larf more!

Comments are closed.