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Unsocial network

The change has happened so smoothly, and so much to our comfort, that we haven’t realised it and its implications. It happened in December 2009 when Google quietly announced that everyone’s search results could look different.

books Updated: Jul 08, 2011 21:27 IST
Shivam Vij

The Filter Bubble
Eli Pariser
Penguin
Rs 550
pp 294

The change has happened so smoothly, and so much to our comfort, that we haven’t realised it and its implications. It happened in December 2009 when Google quietly announced that everyone’s search results could look different. Depending on your search history, location and 57 such ‘signals’, Google gives you search results it thinks are more ‘relevant’ to you. Now I know why I don’t find myself going to page 10 of a Google search anymore! Even if you are not logged in, Google reads about you from your IP address.

But Eli Pariser wants you to think of the dangers of such personalisation: you are being given what you’re interested in, defeating the purpose of the Web in introducing you to knowledge you aren’t inclined towards, beliefs you are opposed to, and ideas that serve to shake up your world. Such personalisation on Google search, Facebook, Amazon and increasingly all Web services is making us live in a ‘filter bubble’. The best example of this is Facebook, where your FB feed shows posts of those friends you’re more likely to be interested in. Pariser is a liberal, but he wants to see what his conservative friends are saying and engage with it. Facebook would rather have him continue living in his liberal cocoon.

When Gmail first arrived, and we were all running to Palika Bazar to see if Gmail invites were selling in the black market, there was a powerful viral campaign to not use Gmail because its algorithms were reading your mail and accordingly producing ‘contextual’ advertising on the sidebar. I have seen friends concerned about privacy shift to Gmail over a period of time. And contextual advertising is now the norm on the internet, which badly needed an advertising model that worked and made the internet economy viable.

Advertising and privacy are only secondary concerns for Pariser. He is most worried about what it does to, well, democracy. If we are all going to live in our filter bubbles, what happens to the Web’s promise of a world that would broaden our horizons, give us information the mainstream media does not, and so on. Fox News also gives its viewers what they want to know and has similar problems, but the Web was supposed to solve exactly that problem. We have the choice not to watch Fox News; internet companies are taking away that element of choice with enforced personalisation, and internet users should demand greater control.

There is more than a hint of paranoia in Pariser’s argument. First, while one agrees there should be more choice, most internet users are only happy with personalisation. Our first need is to know what we’re looking for. Second, even if looking up Egypt gives me more tourism than politics results on the first page, I can always change keyword and look for the Egypt crisis. Third, there are the options to turn off personalisation; to see ‘most recent’ rather than ‘top news’ on Facebook; to make our conservative friends show up more often in our feed, and so on.

One is nevertheless grateful to Pariser for keeping alive the conversation between internet companies and users about the rights of users and about the impact of advertising on content. Most big internet companies are American, but their users are all over the world. Books like these should be read widely in countries like ours. We should join this conversation.

Shivam Vij is a Delhi-based journalist who writes on technology