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Ignored the News About Internet Preferences?

I have.

I opened an email from a few weeks ago and thought, "Jeanine, you have fifteen minutes. It'll come back if it needs your attention." And I promptly clicked "delete" and the email vanished. Honestly, I didn't think about it again.

That is, until I was driving home from "town" the other week. I had the local community radio station on while the girls were playing some screaming, poking game in the backseat. Alas, adult conversation is so incredibly tantalizing these days. So I turned the volume up, ignored all the "Can you change this boring NPR stuff to some music?!" pleas, and listened. And an interview with Eli Pariser came on discussing his new book "The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You."

And what a great interview it was.

Curiosity. Interest. And by the time I drove up to our home, I was upset. Stirred.

You see, I've been blowing off the buzz of the whole "internet storing our preferences" thing without hearing the underlying info. The meaty part. And as I sat there listening to this common-day, completely available knowledge, I felt annoyed that I hadn't read up on it earlier. Hence my sharing it here with you.

Perhaps you've been wondering what the heck preferences actually mean for us as a society. Besides the obvious and truly amazing "You may like this" suggestions, express checkouts, and simplified purchases. I mean really, I was only thinking about my day-to-day "preferences" before listening to this interview. Yes, Google now knows what I "like." What I buy. What I click on. What moves me. Heck, it's stalking me. All right, already. What can I do about that?!

But the part I hadn't connected the dots to was that Google and other search engines are now tailoring EVERYTHING we see based on our previous selections. As in, Jeanine visited amazon, montessori, pandora, oceana,, Natural Resources Defense Council, and a zillion blogs about homemade food, organic gardens, gentle parenting, and motherhood today. So, next time she searches for something, we'll give her what she wants. What she's most likely to click on. What'll make us the most revenue.

And the reality of this is extremely frightening. Polarizing. Undemocratic. It makes your dreams of the open, wide internet world suddenly feel like a farse. A rapidly changing sea of large waves. Waves as high as walls at times. Murky waters below.

For example, try sifting for something specific that Google doesn't think you'll "like" and good luck finding it. It's simply not there. For you anyhow. Eli's example of Egypt's protests was illuminating. He googled "Egypt" and based on our assumptions of his preferences (he was formerly the Executive Director of he received direct links to a ton of protest information. His friend simultaneously googled "Egypt" and received a slough of info on travel to the region, the pyramids. No protest info at all. Captivating, no?

And what does this inform the individual surfer? Hmmmm...that their comfy world is always there. Their likes are available with no work needed. AND that uncomfy world you don't usually search out or see? Well, it's not even there. Seriously, how many people "like" challenges and sticky issues? Racism, sexism, child exploitation.... And now, if you weren't previously hunting them down to prove your genuine interest, these subjects won't necessarily be easily find-able.

And we all know how much time we spend "searching" for things these days. Milli-seconds. I know for me, I type in "interview, Eli Pariser, Internet preferences" and it took me a half hour to find the link. I scoured the internet for a whole half hour. I guess I didn't have it on my previous record of preferences. I feel like when our computers were all chugging along slower, I actually got more direct search results, faster. And I suspect this is due to the current preferential algorithms being fine-tuned now. (UPDATE: I re-googled "Eli Pariser" an hour later to confirm his past occupation and all my links were about his new book!)

But the implications for these new algorithms are huge. I mean, why tell So-and-so about the NY cops who <em>may </em>have raped a drunk woman and who were acquitted last week since she isn't even remotely interested in drunk women, the legal system or police? Racism in LA? John Doe never looks those issues up. In this way, our news, the important stuff, is now being censored. Censored by our own probability to "like" something.

And this also has me re-considering what the heart of online journalism really is these days. It reminds me of the commentary on the Newsweek vs Grand Rapids bit. Newsweek actually said in response to the whole ordeal, " you know what was up with the list you're responding to, we want you to know it was done by a website called -- not by Newsweek (it was unfortunately picked up on the Newsweek web site as part of a content sharing deal) -- and it uses a methodology that our current editorial team doesn't endorse and wouldn't have employed. It certainly doesn't reflect our view of Grand Rapids." Huh? Who's writing this stuff? Online publishers aren't even taking credit for "borrowing" things these days, nonetheless penning their pieces themselves. At least when you visit RosieDreams I will tell you that I'm not a professional journalist. I'm offering you my opinions and ideas on things. And I'm not borrowing content unbeknownst to myself. And to think, it's taken more than a century for journalism to simply get as ethical and honorable as it currently is. And now the internet goes and further complicates things.

And the issue of polarity by far has me most concerned. Concerned because like most people (I hope), I attempt to stay balanced in my perspective. Yes, I'm a liberal. Yes, I'm an environmentalist. A peace-lover. A feminist. A mother. There are plenty of labels to apply to each of us. But, if I'm only seeing issues that my preferences have filtered for me...Yikes! What am I going to know or learn about the "other?" How will I grow as a person, widen my views, concerns and issues? Will my viewpoints sharpen until they begin to dissolve in the process? Eli's analogy of the internet basically offering us a new unhealthy dose of "desserts" (everything we LOVE) rather than a balanced diet of information is scarily what I'm already seeing. Even with my own reading online.

So please, listen to the interview, and leave me a comment. Is this news to you? What are your feelings about the caching of and more importantly the use of your preferences in affecting EVERYTHING you do and see online?

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Comment by Jeanine Ertl on June 8, 2011 at 12:14am
That's funny. I did the same. No Facebook account, no myspace, no twitter, no blog...and then I finally decided that if I was thinking in blog post (obviously reading too many blogs, right?), I may as well start one of my own. And when I did, I said to heck with privacy. I think what shocked me the most by this interview is that truly our worlds (and not just our purchases) are now being shaped by these preferences. These was definitely news to me. So glad you got something out of it. I highly recommend listening to the interview. I linked to it above. It may even be available to download as a podcast to listen while driving. Cheers to you!
Comment by Candace Cavallaro on June 7, 2011 at 11:50pm

It wasn't until recently (this past year) that I began using the resources online as purposefully as I do now.  I always felt these truths that are coming to light.  I didn't want to be labeled, owned, shared or stored.  Then I decided to throw all in!  This article is a great reminder to me that being informed is powerful.  So now I'm thinking some of the same thoughts you are.  I'm trying to get out of my mommy bubble not be sucked deeper in by a virtual list of my likes and dislikes. 


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