Smithers

Last week, Google unveiled Search plus Your World, their latest attempt to make the Internet shittier. Search plus Your World “helps you find personal results that are relevant to you.” What this means is that (when you are signed into your Google account), Google sorts their search results to more accurately reflect what they think you want to know. Which means is that Google is trying to tell you what you want to hear. Cute, but not helping.

Eli Pariser coined the term “Filter Bubble” to describe the ways that some online designs can overreach and become detrimental to user experience. This is most evident in the ways that Google orders its search results and how Facebook decides which of your friends are important to you. I highly recommend viewing Pariser’s TED talk on Filter Bubbles.

Based on your physical location, Internet history, and now your Google+ friends, your search results in Google will be different from anyone else’s, even if they are sitting right next to you. Facebook, for its part, will do things like remove friends from your news feed if you don’t click on the articles and pictures they post often enough.

Both of these things suck. Here’s why: Think about when you ask someone a question. Would you rather they gave you an honest answer, or would you rather they told you what they thought you wanted to hear? It’s the Smithers Predicament. Google could give equal value to their results, but they choose not to. When you’re shopping for shoes, it’s harmless. When you want information about the world, it’s ridiculous. Pariser, in his TED talk, shows screen caps from two friends’ search results on Egypt. The more left-leaning friend got results about the Arab Spring. The more right-leaning friend got results about travel and accommodations. Why? Because Google would rather be Waylon Smithers than Professor Frink.

The Federal Trade Commission has added Google to an antitrust investigation to see whether Google is unfairly promoting its services since results now feature Google+ hits more prominently. I’m not sufficiently versed in antitrust law to speak to that, but I can say that Google’s actions have made me seek out new ways to find information on the Internet. I used to think of Google as the index to an encyclopedia and I’m pretty sure most people feel that way. Now I realize it’s just a Yes Man.

There are ways to get out of the Filter Bubble, but it’s not easy. Pariser offers some tips, while Duck Duck Go is a whole search engine dedicated to not tracking or bubbling you. Their take on the Filter Bubble and its problems is much cooler than this article (check it).

The Internet is one of the single greatest human accomplishments and Google helps millions of people every day. But a bit of skepticism still goes a long way.

[Update – Jan. 26, 2011] Google sees your concern and raises you a No Opt Out. The “Don’t be evil” company is placing even more of its services under a privacy policy that allows them to share information about you. Why would they want to do this? Google’s reason: so they can offer you a better user experience, dear. The real reason: so they can make more money, dummy.

So… don’t be evil, just greedy?

There are a few things to do, besides what I mentioned earlier in this post. You could close your Google account. Also, if you rad ass blog is on Blogger, like mine is, you could move it to another host, like WordPress or DreamHost or any other one that isn’t out there sucking at not being evil.

[Update #2 – Jan. 26, 2011] Just to be sure, I was wrong when I said Google would rather be like Smithers. It’s pretty clear they are aspiring to be Monty Burns. Also, that’s it for Simpsons references. Promise.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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