Living between the linesNotesObservations

New Digital Divides: The Personalized “Filter Bubbles” Menacing Democracy

ObservationsInstead of linking humans together, could digital technologies isolate them from each other? Could personalization of web services produce ghettos? Could it threaten democracy itself? These are the dangers raised by Eli Pariser, president of MoveOn.org, on June 3, 2010, during the last Personal Democracy Forum.

Ethan Zuckerman reported his remarks. First, an example of a personalized conference:

“What if we came to an event like Personal Democracy Forum, and sorted ourselves by gender, age, political ideology, hometown. Pretty soon, we’d all be sitting in small rooms, all by ourselves. What if speakers then offered personalized talks, adding explosions for the young male listeners, for instance. “You’d probably like your personal version better… but it would be a bad thing for me to do.” It renders moot the point of a conference – we no longer have a common ground of speeches that we can discuss in the hallways.”

“Google uses 57 signals available to personalize the web for you, even if you’re not logged in. As a result, the results you get on a Google search can end up being very different, even if quite similar people are searching. Eli shows us screenshots of a search for “BP” conducted by two young women, both living in the North eastern US. They get very different results… one set focuses on business issues and doesn’t feature a link on the oil spill in the top three, while the other does. And one user got 141 million results, while the other got 180 million. Just imagine how different those results could be for very different users.”

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