Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Internet Can Provide Rose Colored Glasses

For an increasing number of us, the Internet is becoming our window on the world. Gone are the days when the nightly TV news or the morning newspaper served as our source of what is happening around town or around the world. It is not only late breaking news events that beckon us to our computer screens, iPads and smart phones. We look for recipes for chicken, instructions on fixing a faucet and the current weather forecast for the weekend getaway. In short, the Internet and search engines like Google and Bing have become our trusted advisor, our news source, and in so doing have gathered more information about us than perhaps any person in our life.

For many of us who use online retailers like, having suggestions for items that we might like to buy when we sign on to the service is nothing new. When you are first presented with these suggestions it is kind of cool. It makes the online experience feel like talking to an old friend who knows your likes and dislikes, your interests and avocations. It is comfortable.

There has been much discussion of late about this phenomenon. In his recently published book "The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You," Eli Pariser, details what companies are doing online to personalize your Internet experience. For sure this personalization is helpful when looking for some music or a new book to read. It can have some negative impacts if it also filters what you see and hear as news.

In order to be an informed citizen and make good knowledgeable choices in the voting booth, it is necessary that we get all points of view. If our Internet experience is filtering what we see and hear based on our current political bent we can be come insular to what is really happening in the world. This can happen on both sides of the political spectrum. If we only log on to our perception of the world will reflect that point of view. Those who only reference only will be equally under-informed.

Pariser suggests that there is a simple test you can do that demonstrates how your search results may be filtered based on what the search engine “thinks” you want to see. Do a search on some news item or person. Search for Barack Obama or Osama Bin Laden. Take note of the results and the order that they are displayed on your Bing or Google search. Now ask a friend to do the same thing. Compare the results. You might be amazed at the difference.

For sure the Internet allows you to save time and effort when you are shopping by giving you selections for what you are most interested in based on what you have purchased before. A suggestion for a new restaurant based on where you have gone in the past can be very helpful. When it comes to keeping up on local or national news and issues, there may be things that you might not want to know but need to know. There may be things you are missing. According to Pariser, instead of doing what great media does, which is push us out of our comfort zone at times and show us things that we wouldn't expect to like or wouldn't expect to want to see, some online services are showing us a very narrowly constructed zone of what they think is most relevant to us.

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