published Friday, May 20th, 2011

Search engines keep track of your surfing


by Donnie Jenkins

There is an old saying that a fish notices everything but the water it swims in. This is a simple way of saying that we tend to overlook the most obvious aspects of our lives if they become too familiar.

This tendency is handy in disregarding trivial or unimportant information, but it becomes a problem when it keeps us from perceiving subtle changes in the ordinary.

This seems to be the case in a new development concerning Google, Facebook and other services. Several tech writers this week have mentioned the tendency for services to personalize their offerings to their users. This is nothing new but this trend does have some possibly disturbing consequences.

By now we’re all used to Facebook and Google showing us ads and other content that reflect our current activity on the sites. This can actually be helpful and enjoyable as it fits in well with our flow of activity.

These services accomplish this by studying the way we use them daily, then developing strategies called algorithms to predict what we like and then to serve up only items in that category. This sounds good on the surface of things, but this approach quickly breaks down when you consider that sometimes we need to find information that we don’t expect or with which we are not familiar. This is especially true in research and search in general when we are unsure of exactly what we need.

Eli Pariser recently presented this idea in a TED video in which he talked about the “Filter Bubbles” created by this process. He makes some excellent points, and I highly recommend watching the entire short video on ted.com or YouTube.

His key point is that our online experience is being edited in such a way that we never are aware of what we don’t see as a result of our online activities. This is most disturbing to me as a writer and musician as some of my best or most interesting work has come from accidents and unexpected discoveries. It is in fact the unexpected that can be most useful to us in moving to the next task or level of understanding.

I often quote Bill Murray’s character in the movie “Groundhog Day” who said “anything different is good.” That movie shows clearly what happens when we get caught up in a repeating pattern of behavior that we can predict. In the movie as in real life, it is only when we change our actions that we change our experience. This will be more difficult unless we are presented with choices and information that go beyond what we expect to find.

I would hate to see the Internet become a wasteland as television did for so long. It has only become so popular by allowing a variety of experiences to users. It is in fact its “Wild West” nature that got us all interested in the first place, if you recall.

Personalization won’t be going away anytime soon, but let’s hope we see alternative approaches to meeting our needs. Where is that next search engine or social network like service that will let us explore freely while still tailoring content to our needs? I see a bright future for such a service when we find it.

Email Donnie Jenkins at donniejenkins@yahoo.com

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May 20, 2011 at 9:10 p.m.
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