Personalization has become a new buzzword. All major websites are now offering personalization services to make your experience on their site unique. Also, there are several social news apps, like Flipboard and Zite, that personalize your news-reading experience by serving you articles that they believe you would be interested in.
Similarly, the news you read on social networking sites, like Facebook, Google+, or Twitter, is shared by your circle of friends and acquaintances; people who probably have similar outlooks on life and share most of your interests. Also, most search engines now allow you to connect your social networking accounts to them. They then use information from these accounts to customize your search results. In short, each of us is seeing a different “Internet”, one that is tailored to our interests.
In moderation, this is a good thing. If you are not interested in sports, you will probably appreciate the fact that stories about that topic are not included in your daily dose of news. However, when taken to excess, personalization can become harmful. The excessive customization of the Internet creates a so-called “filter bubble”.
This filter bubble cuts you off from different points of views. For example, if an algorithm determines that your economic views lean toward capitalism, it may exclude stories with a socialist bent from your view. This means that you will never read an article that may offer a different perspective on that particular issue. And if you never read such an article, then you will never get the chance to examine the issue from a different point of view.
Complex issues rarely have a clear-cut answer, and by blocking out all differing points of view, you prevent yourself from getting the big picture. You are trapped in an infinite loop that reinforces your point of view. This is a very dangerous situation.
Our world is becoming increasingly polarized, and this filter bubble is contributing to the polarization. As a matter of fact, this filter bubble can also contribute to the spread of false news. For example, I keep seeing people post this chart on US debt. The accuracy of the chart has been debunked several times by fact checking organizations, but it seems to have taken on a life of its own.
The filter bubble contributes to this problem by burying stories that debunk this chart from people who share it. So not only does excessive customization of the Internet, particularly news sites, lead to increased polarization, but it can also lead to the spread of false information.
Do yourself a favor and try to read one or two articles outside your conform zone per week. Log out of your search engine account, and search the web without the influence of your social networking sites on results. Actively seek articles by writers you know oppose the point of view you hold. Trust me, this will enrich your intellectual life significantly.
I am not suggesting that you should give “equal-time” to obviously odious world-views, like fascism or apartheid, although I have forced myself to read an article or two from those world-views to fully grasp their depravity. Rather, I am asking that you do not give up your free will to a computer algorithm. Do not let personalization algorithms determine what news you do or do not read. As in nutrition, a balanced diet of news is the best way to ensure good health.