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Internet, Please Tell Me What I Want

Let’s say you’re at home and you need an answer fast.  What do you do first? Google it, that’s what.

google results blue red yellow words

Always the first choice when you need 38,000,000,000 results about anything in 0.29 seconds

Later, you need another answer, but this time let’s say you’re not at home.  Instead you’re using a public computer at the neighborhood Internet & Manga & Tapioca Café (Google it).  Now that you’re using a public computer, with who knows what preferences, browser history, and cookies, you’ll get a different search result.

Search engine providers know a ton about each of us and therefore the results of our searches are increasingly truncated.  Search no longer just means getting the most popular results for a certain topic, it means the results you are seeing are specifically being shown to you because it’s what the search engines think you want to see.

office cat google meme search results

Oh Google, you always know what I’m looking for…

You might be thinking to yourself “that doesn’t sound so bad.  I mean it’s giving us things we’re interested in quicker and cutting out the fluff, right?”  To an extent that’s true, but there are some pitfalls worth exploring, and some really smart people are already speaking out about how this practice could be doing damage to the way we’re using the Internet and exposing ourselves to the world around us.

Admittedly, the above is a pretty extreme perspective, but criticism of personalized search is widespread enough that it constitutes 1/3 of the entire Wikipedia page. In layman’s terms, why is this feature destructive?

Basically, by hiding certain search results deemed ‘uninteresting’ we are essentially having choices made for us. This, in result, limits and changes the way we might otherwise be able to use and experience the Internet.  To be clear, this is not akin to an earthquake type disaster where the effects are immediate and the severity easily evaluated.  Personalized search is more like Global Warming: some people deny or ignore negative effects, others warn about it, but either way we won’t know for sure until it’s too late.  The potential effects of personalized search could be much more disastrous than an earthquake (say Google goes down for a few days) and the impact much more long-lasting.  It could literally permanently alter the Internet ecosystem.  But there are bright spots that are be shaping our future for good.

Sites like Pinterest which allow users to make their own choices and curate their own interests online are popping up by the dozens.  Encouragingly, many of the countless Pinterest spin-offs are enjoying success, which proves the concept that people still like to be in control.

We don’t typically think of Google Search as being restrictive.  After all, we tell it what we want and it always delivers.  However, we want content curation and choice-making to be something that propels the future of the Internet forward, not something we only see in the rearview.

Here’s to keeping it smart, keeping it ours, and including people.

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