Personalized to Death

First, visit this site.  Watch the video.


I’ve been reading about this recently. And it has me more and more concerned. I read this New Scientist article just a couple of days ago.

Initially, I wasn’t concerned about my data being tracked. “I’ve got nothing to hide,” I thought.  I was naive. It’s not about the information I give them, it’s about how they use that information to shape the information they give me.

When I first read that my Google results are different from someone else’s results for the exact same search I realized I’ve contributed to something that is going to get bad. It is worse than reading a conservative or a liberal publication. I can always choose a different publication if I want another perspective. But how do I get a different perspective if Google only gives me links to liberal points of view?

I want to propose an experiment.  Here is a screenshot of my “abortion” search results.  Link to your own screenshot and let’s compare.

My results for an "abortion" search. What are your results?

Keep in mind, I scrolled down past the advertisements and the localized results, those are less critical differences.  These are the first of the real results.  What do yours look like?

Google has always ranked their results based on what other people click on.  Now they are doing it based on what you click on.  But what if I don’t really know what I am looking for?  Filtered web content makes the web smaller, though.  Rather than finding immediate access to an expansive world of information, we must first navigate out of an artificially limited local neighborhood of familiarity.

Anyway.  Watch the video.  If you don’t think it could ever effect the actual content of what is presented to us, like in EPIC, then check out this video of Google’s Living Stories experiment from about a year ago.

I am trying not to be reactionary about this.  All this information does no good if I don’t have a plan to address it.  Part of the plan is to spread awareness.  Do not become lazy in your pursuit of information.  That leads to the second part: make sure you seek information through multiple channels.  That doesn’t just mean use different search engines, but seeking out channels that deliver diverse information and perspectives.  Moreover, read everything with skepticism.  If something doesn’t seem to add up, pursue it.

This whole idea of over-personalized web content is only a problem if we allow it to think for us.

Thanks to David Robertson here on WordPress for linking to the EPIC site.


4 thoughts on “Personalized to Death

  1. It won’t let me “like” this because I don’t want to sign up for WordPress. But I DO like this! Media takeover is noooo good! Fight the power! :)

  2. Hmm, It’ll take me a while to process this, to form an opinion on whether or not this will be that big of a problem. To get ‘vanilla’ google results I should just be able to launch a ‘icognito’ or ‘private’ browsing session shouldn’t I?? In fact a simple solution I think google and others should begin to implement along with personalized results is perhaps a “vanilla search’ function. Something that just goes by pagerank, not like-rank, or whatever.

    • Actually, I tried doing an incognito search and it still seemed to skew my results a bit.

      I agree with you though. Google should just include a message “These results have been personalized, click here to see traditional search results…” That is the best of both worlds.

      Really, my worry is just the homogeneity of information the unsuspecting and less savvy would eventually be surrounded by. People that use Google to search for information and never suspect that they are not getting the full story. Someone searches for “Occupy Wall Street” and Google says, well you read these five articles on about capitalism and the American spirit, so the first ten results we think you want are all about why OWS is disorganized with no central message and how the youth want power and wealth but don’t want to work for it. When in reality, that person knew nothing about the movement and was trying to form an educated opinion, but they are being fed these one-sided search results.

      On that note, I just found out about, an always-vanilla search engine.

      Thanks for reading and for your comment. What do you think, is my scenario unrealistic?

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