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Interest-centric Interactions: Personalization or Invisible Censorship?

Imagine yourself on a trip to your local public library. Upon your arrival you notice that their selection of books is considerably smaller than you remember, but to your delight, they have preserved all of your favorite genres and topics. Your librarian explains that through the use of a new “magical” technology, your library experience has been tailored to suite your tastes – spy novels, tech magazines, war documentaries and the likes. Your library experience will now be much more enjoyable without the vast clutter of boring books that you once had to wade through to find that one appealing book to take home. But there is a hidden cost to this magic library: a vast range of topics are now forever out of your reach, and even worse, in your bliss, you will never know what you’re missing out on.

At least once per day, I log in to my Facebook account and spend a few minutes combing through my News Feed and then switch tabs to Google News where I spend several more minutes reading the daily news. It is easy to forget that much of the online information that we take in is filtered and personalized. And it should be. In an age of easy and constant information production – tweets, status updates, blog posts, etc. – information overload is a serious problem for users and must be handled with filters of some sort. Tech companies of all stripes have adopted personalization as a core tenet in their product designs. The concern is, who controls these personalization filters and how do they affect our online experience?

In a recent TED talk, Eli Pariser warned of the dangers of online filter “bubbles”. Pariser argues that personalization severely narrows our exposure to important information and ultimately narrows our worldview. A liberal user’s online bubble might exclusively consist of information from liberal sources. Because they are unaware and uninvolved in the invisible work of personalization algorithms, users may eventually come to believe that their worldview is the only worldview. At the heart of this problem are the lack of user awareness and participation in the management of these information filters.

Many Facebook users are oblivious to the fact that their News Feed is filtered based on the frequency of their interactions with others. On Facebook and other websites, users have little control over the degree to which personalization occurs.  Transparency, with regards to how content is filtered, is typically very limited and often the only thing that users see in the filtering process is the final product. This amounts to a form of invisible censorship, providing the user with agreeable content but withholding potentially important content.

Users need to push for more open and customizable methods of personalization, and web developers ought to listen. Ultimately, it is user who should have control of their information bubble and the filtering rules applied to it.  The internet’s power lies in connecting us to the unfamiliar and unknown. We must be careful not to sacrifice exposure to new content in the name of personalization.

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June 2nd, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | No Comments

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