Posted on July 4, 2011.
Remember when you read 1984 in high school? You were outraged that freedom of information could be so curtailed. You knew in your heart that you would stand against Big Brother if it ever came to that, and you swore that you would doggedly protect intellectual freedom so that it never would. You became a librarian. An Information Professional.
And you’ve done a fine job protecting our rights and freedoms from a government that might restrict them for our own good.
In the mean time, though, private companies have silently stepped into the role. Two giants, Facebook and Google, now offer Personalized Results. You may have noticed, Facebook has filtered the information you see in your newsfeed. They do this so that we won’t be overwhelmed by too much information, so that we can focus on the people who matter most and tune out the rest. However, a growing percentage of people (a recently estimated 35% of people in their 20s) get their news information primarily from this social site, and that information is filtered as well.
Even more significant, Google quietly announced in late 2009 that they would be rolling out Personalized Search for all users. This means that your Google search results are now tailored to you, based on IP address locations, previous searches, and the results you chose from those searches. Consider the example of three people searching the same phrase, "Joplin tornado." One is an environmentalist, another an investment banker, the third a medical librarian (like me!). With Personalized Search, each would get different results. The environmentalist could read about the environmental impact of natural disasters and green rebuilding. The banker would get results geared toward the economic repercussions of the storm and the estimated costs of rebuilding. The medical librarian would get results about casualties. The first two examples are supposition, but this last is true. I was surprised to see such gruesome results, especially when I compared my medical-librarian-Personalized-Results with an un-filtered search that retrieved general news, updates from the Red Cross, and even a pet rescue site. I could have used some of that information.
On one hand, Personalized Results can be very useful. If you are a car enthusiast who searches for Jaguar, you won’t have to sift through results about wildlife.
However, and here’s where the fear comes in, you may gradually lose touch with opposing view points. As Google targets your search history and builds a profile of your beliefs, you will see fewer and fewer opinions in your Google results list that vary from your own. And, as in the Joplin example, we don’t know what we are missing until we look at it from another perspective. This personalized Google feature can be worked around (add the string “&pws=0” to the end of your search query), but you have to know about it to be able to change it.
What is the significance of this for special librarians? In the hands of a professional, Personalized Search could save time, if we are able to use it to work for us, rather than against us. If I Google a word I am unfamiliar with, it would be nice if the results included medical dictionaries and definitions.
But I abhor the idea of my searches being filtered, even through my own perspective. As a librarian, I know the value of balanced information. If I am doing research about a new procedure, I cannot miss out on information just because Google’s algorithms don’t think I would be interested. I cannot avoid a second or third view point, especially if it’s a dissenting view. The times when I turn to Google, when I need a general starting point for an unfamiliar topic or if my databases have yet to index something really new, are the times when I most need an un-limited breadth of information.
This Personalization phenomenon is still relatively new. But it’s also still prevalently silent and unknown, and it is affecting our (and our patron’s) information consumption more than we may know. What will we do about it? And how will we let it affect our Information Profession?
By Julie Timmins, MLS
For more about this topic, checkout:
Filter bubble, by Eli Pariser (2011)
The Googlization of everything: (and why we should worry), by Siva Vaidhyanathan (2011)
Republic.com and Republic.com 2.0, by Cass Sunstein (2002 and 2009)
The Control Revolution: how the Internet is putting individuals in charge and changing the world we know by Andrew Shapiro (2000)
The Information: a history, a theory, a flood, by James Gleick (2011)
Google News, News For You! and more on personalized, socially shared news
Pros and Cons of Personalized Search
And for a wholly dissenting opinion, see The Technology Liberation Front
More on how to un-personalize your search, including how to trick your location