The closed loop of social media

Student Life

You might think that Googling the web is a bit like flicking through an expanded and less structured Encyclopaedia Britannica at super-speed. Worries about the differences between the results of seemingly identical search results suggest otherwise. Your experience of the web is far from pure.

When you Google, a huge number of factors are taken into account, meaning that two identical searches for the same word or phrase can get very different results. Searching from a particular area, the computer you’re using, your web browser, your web history, your IP address or internet provider, even the emails you have sent and received using your Gmail account – all of these variables make a difference to what you see after you hit ‘enter’.

Users signed into their Google account when using the internet must remember that they are essentially Google’s lab rats. It’s well-known that Google tailor their lucrative ads based on what you’re searching for, it’s less well-known that every piece of information you submit to Google may be used to tailor your experience of the web. In fact, as strides in information analysis mean that Google’s ads now seem so breathtakingly relevant that they must have been served up by voodoo wizard magic, Google is introducing a small ‘Why these ads?’ button to placate creeped-out users.

Recently, Google also announced that they have changed their search algorithm to prioritise current events over other results. For example, if you search for ‘Greece’, you’ll see results about the recent and ongoing crisis favoured over generic results profiling Greece as a country. Yes, up-to-date information is crucial for sports fans, news followers and finance-related searches, but an unknown bias can’t be good.

The world wide web is being tailored and filtered based on what Google thinks you want to see. Obviously this is not always a bad thing. But a lack of transparency is definitely a bad thing. How will we know if we are in a closed loop of social media? This has implications beyond the realms of search.

Andrew Rossi’s recent documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times weighs up the pros and cons of traditional print versus social media. Aggregated news sources such as Gawker aim to provide the content people want to receive. There’s a reason that some online news sites seem exclusively to have stories about Justin Bieber. We ask for Bieber news, we read Bieber news, it looks like we want more Bieber news. Gawker keeps on top of the most popular searches, articles and trends, serving up content to fit.

In Rossi’s film, reporters at the Times characterise their role more as ‘truth-telling’ or ‘fact-finding’ – they aim to hold people to account, to find the most perfect version of the truth available and convey that to their readers. This is the part of the media which refuses to be led by page views or ‘fashionable news’. On the other hand, social media gives us what we want, but doesn’t always expose us to things we might not have asked for – that groundbreaking story, that previously unknown humanitarian crisis, that detailed, boring but immensely important report on the long-term future of a certain issue.

Currently, my Facebook feed is full of people reading stories about Oxbridge. The Guardian and The Independent both recently launched apps which make use of Facebook’s live ‘ticker’ feed, showing the user what their friends are reading in real time. The advantages of this feature have been praised endlessly, mainly because most presume that it brings about a whole new level of sharing and discussing news. But once three or four articles become popular, they are the only ones promoted. Getting your news through Facebook begins to feel like listening to the horrendous feedback produced when a microphone is held against a loudspeaker.

The Times apparently refuse to take this approach with their new Google+ page, stating that this is “a place for conversation, innovation and experimentation”. Yet they still make assumptions about their audience which will affect the content they receive. After observing that “many of you are passionate and smart consumers of technology”, the Times say they will give Google+ users “thought-provoking stories about how technology is transforming our societies”.

The internet has so far been a beautiful thing, but parts of our more connected world are becoming disconnected. Be aware of the assumptions being made about what you want to see, and know that search engines and providers of online content, including traditional print outlets, are by no means neutral or passive.

In the technological age of information sharing, there is a real danger that we risk being cut off.

James Carroll

PHOTO/west.m