Does Search Limit Us?

I just read a provocative review of a provocative new book – “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You,” by Eli Pariser.

The board president of MoveOn.org, Pariser muses about the perils of excessive personalization on the Web. He’s also concerned that technology companies are narrowing our digital experiences.

“Personalization filters,” he writes, “serve up a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.”

This point of view echoes that of legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who worried about Internet users getting stuck inside “information cocoons” in his book, “Republic.com.” 

Pariser has a solution for this, and he calls for greater openness and diversity when it comes to search results and recommendations so that unfettered and serendipitous discovery can take place.

My opinion is more intricate. I believe that personalization lives on a spectrum, as opposed to an all-or-nothing scenario. At one end, overdone personalization can produce an unhealthy bubble of self-ignorance as Pariser and Sunstein suggest. But at the other end of the spectrum, where no personalization exists, things are equally bad. The key is determining what’s best for the individual customer experience.

Taking search as an example, the future of personalization is getting the right resources or results to answer your needs as effectively as possible. But personalization doesn’t mean that we have to change the answer. Rather, it means having – and using – much more context about you than what’s available in technology and user interfaces today.

Personalization done well will generate the results you want, without forcing you to sift through the results you would have ignored anyway. And personalization still leaves room to access diversity and alternatives: done right, it will center the bullseye of its results right on your most likely interests; but that doesn’t mean it needs to block out the rest.

In fact, as long as we are interested in diversity, search engines and other content discovery engines will deliver it – because they are in the business of serving our interests. And if they stop doing so, the reason won’t be the technology’s preferences – it will be our own preferences.

In the meantime, the best companies will enable users to have control on the privacy front. And even with those controls, most consumers will almost certainly trade personal information for spot-on content and the right kind of delivery.

So, once again, I come down on the side of Web users. I’m in favor of personalization done well, and I’m all for letting consumers decide for themselves what works and what doesn’t online.

 

One thought on “Does Search Limit Us?

  1. Interesting stats pulled from Stanford class on social data: On Facebook, 15% of new discovery happens via real-time identity search. 85% happens via newsfeed.

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