Why a hyper-personalized Web is bad for you (Q&A)

45 Minutes on IM: Eli Pariser, author of "The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You," says we should be increasingly aware--and wary--of tools to bring us a Web experience explicitly tailored to our interests.

We all like having things tailored to our specific needs and interests. But Eli Pariser thinks we should beware of the substantial risks inherent in the increasing personalization of the Internet.

Better known (so far) as the executive director of the progressive political action committee MoveOn.org, Eli Pariser is making noise these days as the author of "The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You." His new book, which was released yesterday, argues that the latest tools being implemented by the likes of Google and Facebook for making our Internet experiences as individual as possible are taking us down some very unsavory paths.

First, of course, Pariser explains the dynamic we all face online today: that no two people's Web searches, even on the same topics, return the same results. That's because search engines and other sites are basing what they send back on our previous searches, the sites we visit, ads we click on, preferences we indicate, and much more. Not to mention the fact that we are more and more shielded from viewpoints counter to our own.

Jen Campbell

But while the results are no doubt geared to what we're most interested in, they come at a price--in terms of lost privacy, more ads, and even being followed by certain types of ads no matter where we go online.

Yesterday, Pariser sat down with CNET for a 45 Minutes on IM interview about his book and the problems that come with increasing personalization, and why people should care.

Q: Thank you so much for doing this. I appreciate it. To start out, for readers who aren't familiar with your book, can you explain the basic premise behind "The Filter Bubble," and explain the title?
Eli Pariser: Invisibly but quickly, the Internet is changing. Sites like Google and Facebook show you what they think you want to see, based on data they've collected about you. So, for example, if you google Obama and I do the same thing at the same time, we may get very different results. The filter bubble is the invisible, personal universe of information that results--a bubble you live in, and you don't even know it. And it means that the world you see online and the world I see may be very different.

Why did you want to write this?
Pariser: Well, I initially got interested because it was so invisible. Here's something that literally affects almost every Web surfer, but none of us can see it--you can't tell how different your Web experience is from anyone else's, unless you literally put two monitors side by side. So I wanted to show people what was happening, and to explain where it's coming from, and to talk about what we can do about it, because I don't think it's set in stone. And on the current trajectory, it'll be bad for us.

So, that brings up some of the questions I had prepared, of course. But let me start by asking what can we do about it?
Pariser: Well, there are a few layers to that. As consumers, we can vary our information pathways more and use things like incognito browsing to stop some of the tracking that leads to personalization. But that's only a partial, temporary solution. Really, it's in these companies' hands to do this ethically--to build algorithms that show us what we need to know and what we don't know, not just what we like. So we need Google and Facebook and the other companies to take their curation responsibility seriously, and to build a sense of civic life into their algorithms. And if they don't, then we probably need some regulation. Google and Facebook are now more than insurgent start-ups--they hold a lot of public trust.

There's lots of money in doing it the way they do it now, correct?
Pariser: Yes, there's a lot of money in building personalized filters right now. Every major Internet company is working on it in one way or another. More "personal relevance" means more eyeballs on ads and content. In lots of cases, this will be pretty good for consumers. But it's not necessarily good for citizens. It can leave us in our own isolated information world.

So why would the Googles and Facebooks of the world change what they're doing (absent government regulation)?
Pariser: My hope is that, like newspapers, they'll move from a pure profit-making posture to one that recognizes that they're keepers of the public trust.

I don't mean to beat a dead horse here, but how realistic is that? I mean, your book will surely raise awareness, but even so, there would have to be a real public outcry about the problems inherent in this for these companies to want to change, no?
Pariser: Yes, that's the other piece, and I'm hoping my book will stir that up. I mean, most people don't know how Google and Facebook are controlling their information flows. And once they do, most people I've met want to have more control and transparency than these companies currently offer. So it's a way in to that conversation. First people have to know how the Internet is being edited for them.

Let's go back to what's good and bad about the personalization. Tell me some ways that this is not a good thing?
Pariser: Here's a few. 1) It's a distorted view of the world. Hearing your own views and ideas reflected back is comfortable, but it can lead to really bad decisions--you need to see the whole picture to make good decisions.

2) It can limit creativity and innovation, which often come about when two relatively unrelated concepts or ideas are juxtaposed.

and 3) It's not great for democracy, because democracy requires a common sense of the big problems that face us and an ability to put ourselves in other peoples' shoes.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that the Googles and Facebooks are being altruistic with their implementation of personalization technology. What would they say are the benefits to us? And what do you think the benefits are?
Pariser: There's no question that we need some algorithmic help to sort through the masses of data that are now available online. And I find sites like Netflix useful--there are too many movies for me to browse them all. Recommendation is handy. The question is really in how it's done. And how easy it is for users to see and manipulate.

Just playing devil's advocate, though, is there any reason the Internet should be different than the rest of our lives? I mean, we've always self-filtered what we read, watch on TV, whom we talk to, etc., and thus limited our full view of the world. No?
Pariser: Well, sometimes that's true. But I want the Internet to be better than all those lame old media. The very best media mixes together information dessert and information vegetables, and you get a balanced information diet. The filter bubble gives you a world where information junk food is the only thing that seems to exist.

Tell me some of the most surprising things you discovered in your research for the book?
Pariser: I was really intrigued by the work of Stanford researchers Dean Eckles and Maurits Kapstein, who figured out that not only do people have personal tastes, they have personal "persuasion profiles." So I might respond more to appeals to authority (Barack Obama says buy this book), and you might respond more to scarcity ("only 2 left!"). In theory, if a site like Amazon could identify your persuasion profile, it could sell it to other sites--so that everywhere you go, people are using your psychological weak spots to get you to do stuff. I also really enjoyed talking to the guys behind OKCupid, who take the logic of Google and apply it to dating.

How so?
Pariser: Well, OKCupid essentially allows you to build your own personalized search engine. You enter the weight of the variables, and it matches you with the people with whom you're most likely to be a fit. It's a step toward a fully algorithm-mediated world.

In the book, you said that a single event was the most important in the onslaught of personalization. What was that, and why was it so important?
Pariser: On December 4th, 2009, Google announced that it was turning on personalized search for everyone. It was in a little blog post--easy to miss--but it had huge repercussions: Now, even if you were logged out of your Google account, Google was showing you your own personal view of the web. Most people missed it. But to me, that really signaled the beginning of the era of personalization.

Can you say just a bit more about why that was such a game-changer?
Pariser: It signaled that whether you want it or not, one of the primary ways people surf the Web was going to be personalized. But I also thought that the silence around it was interesting: Nobody noticed when Google went all-in on personalization, because the filtering is very hard to see.

How rapidly is this technology changing? And what are the latest and greatest tools?
Pariser: It's changing every day--the Facebook News Feed seems to change on an hourly basis, even. The latest tools I've seen focus in two areas. First, there's better, faster "behavior market" tools, built by companies like BlueKai, that basically allow companies to bid in real time to personalize your ads. And then there are the more creepy tools that allow tracking even when you think you're not [being tracked]--fingerprinting, for example, the individual computer you're on.

Last question, and it's my standard one for this Q&A series. I really like doing IM interviews, as I get a perfect transcript, and because the interviewee can be more thoughtful and articulate than they might otherwise be. But it's also because IM allows for multi-tasking. So, tell me, what else were you doing while we were doing this interview?
Pariser: Ha ha. Well, between Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail on my two-monitor setup here, I had no shortage of distractions. But I did try to stay focused, and at least when I get distracted on IM it doesn't register as an awkward pause (like it does on the phone). I was also listening to the new Fleet Foxes album, which was nice.

Well, thank you so much for taking the time to do this, and congrats on the book.
Pariser: Thanks so much for having me! I like the IM interview format too. It's a good form, and it gave me a chance to reformulate some of my thoughts at writing speed.

 

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