Filter Bubbles = Sheltered Lives?

censorship causes blindness
Image: Andreia via flickr

As search engines, mail programs, news feeds and social media streams become increasingly personalised, users are missing out on potentially important information and living increasingly sheltered online lives.

For internet marketers and SEO it’s a double-edged sword; we get more precise targeting, but lose predictable global search results on consumer’s screens. Discussion of the subject is picking up across the internet in recent weeks as awareness of ‘personalised filter bubbles’ enters the public consciousness. We'd love to hear what you think; add your comments at the bottom of the page.

In case you’ve missed out on the concept, the upshot of personalisation is that no two people are receiving exactly the same search results, news headlines and overall spread of information. A complex web of algorithms are sitting between users and the internet; these automated systems prioritise search results, news items and even products that we are deemed to be interested in.

The arguments in favour of personalisation can be persuasive. Our filter bubble can help to sift the vast amount of information and point us in the right direction. The benefits for internet advertisers, marketers and retailers are clear, as these invisible filters actively push people in the direction of services and products they are supposed to be more likely to buy. It is this desire to target advertising more precisely - not a desire to help us tame the vastness of the internet – that drives the personalisation boom.

The biggest dangers of personalised results are the political and social implications. If you lean towards the left or right, or are more likely to click through to left-wing or right-wing material, you will receive more of those kinds of links in prominent positions. If you allow it, how long until you don’t know what your political opponents say? How long until you only receive content from your own racial, fiscal or geographical demographic? How long until all meaningful debate ends on the internet because everyone is 'safely' separated in their assigned internet ghettos?

Consider this: by blindly accepting personal censorship we might be going back in time, negating the social benefits of living in a global internet community. If people only talk to their neighbours, only read the local press, and only communicate with people like them, they are not exposed to any other points of view and are made vulnerable to propaganda and brainwashing. It’s not that different to living under the extreme media controls and censorship of countries such as China and Iran – except here in ‘the democratic world of free speech’ we are facilitating internet censorship through our own inaction rather than being forced into it.


people in bubbles
Image: Emilio Labrador via flickr

So how serious is this filtering? Well, it is much more extensive than you might realise, affects you in various ways, and your bubble can be quite hard to pop. Thanks to recent changes localisation can now only be circumvented by using third party browser plug-ins, advanced search operators, or Chrome’s incognito window. There is no way to switch off Google's localisation in your browser, or set your location to planet Earth; the best you can do is set it to your entire country – which in a country as small as the UK is incredibly limiting.

What can we do to pop our bubbles? Here’s a trick: adding &pws=0 to the end of your search URL will (for now at least...) remove localisation from your Google results. Also ensure you are logged out of any Google accounts to avoid the ‘personal’ factor.

The easiest way to avoid both localisation and personalisation is to exclusively use Chrome’s incognito window for your searches. Watch out though, there is a strong chance this aspect of incognito will be removed –it might compromise someone’s profits - or a government’s censorship interests.

To recap, why would Google do this? Well, it helps me find a pizza or a cab in my area more easily, ensuring that Google’s local advertisers are getting a better deal by hitting their target audience more efficiently. But come on Google, we’re not stupid – if I want a pizza in Worthing I’m perfectly capable of typing ‘pizza in Worthing’ like I used to.

Personalisation and localisation are a real threat to social, cultural and political progress towards a more tolerant and understanding ‘global village’ that the internet can help facilitate. A more immediate symptom of the stealthy way our individual bubbles have been constructed is that most people are totally unaware that their internet access is being censored.

In a very annoying example of Google showing people what they want to see, agency clients now often insist their key term is at no.1 in Google.

We have to explain how they are being deceived; as Google shows no sign of letting people know.