This is your brain on Internet: How the Web filters out the contention we need

pods the matrix

On the Web, relevance is king. Pandora picks the next song based on your current favorites. If you just bought a stroller, Amazon will suggest diapers and Baby Einstein videos. And Google, well… with user data worth any statistician’s pipe dream, it susses out your location, Internet browser, and previous searches to curate a page of results most likely to merit your coveted click.

Since the early 90s, the burgeoning “information superhighway” has come off as a sprawling monster of excess and (literally) TMI. Search engines like Yahoo! and Google sprang up like librarians, guiding searchers to what they were looking for. These companies soon realized that combined with ad revenue, their precious algorithms could parlay into big business and 10-digit IPO’s.

It didn’t take long for localization to pervade every corner of the Internet: Facebook’s Friend Finder, Netflix movie suggestions (it held a $1 million contest for the best code), OKCupid’s number-crunching matchmaker. Presently, there is huge money in finding what people, knowingly or not, want to see. But is there a price to filtering out more and more of the Web at large?

Preaching to the choir

Since those early days, we’ve taken Internet “randomness” for granted — we could revisit that sprawling monster any time, to find what we never expected or wanted to see. But the Web has become so good at filtering what we want that it’s begun to crowd out the riffraff. So good, that it can pinpoint that small slice of the Web we’re interested in, and serve up enough content to make that slice feel like an infinite universe unto itself.

The signs are everywhere. If aliens landed and saw my Netflix recommendations, they would think the entirety of humanity’s cinematic contribution was either French noir or Hot Tub Time Machine. In a recent TED talk, Eli Pariser noticed that his conservative friends gradually vanished from his newsfeed, as Facebook caught on to his progressive leanings.  Even back in 2004, the idea of the “Internet echo chamber” had already bounced around as an isolating effect.

“[These were] places where like-minded people talk to one another,” wrote Andrew Leonard for Salon, in the aftermath of the Bush re-election. “Nobody ever changes anyone else’s mind and true diversity of opinion is exchanged for an infinite plenitude of ideologically identical communities.”

However, the most damning aspect isn’t simply how the Web prefers to feed us the familiar — after all, anyone with 10 fingers and an address bar can find to a cornucopia of variety. What’s more insidious is how these echo chambers warp the way we perceive novelty in the first place. Leonard wrote,

“When I visited the right-wing blogosphere, it was like going to the zoo to look at exotic animals. Sometimes I admired the quality of its spin, too, but I dismissed it, secure in the armor provided by the communities of people who shared my values… what I find most disturbing, is how easy the Internet has made it not just to Google the fact I need when I need it, but to get the mindset I want, when I want it.”

Who saves us from ourselves?

For search engines, the sycophantic urge is strong — delivering the familiar, the desired, the safe content has always been a reliable moneymaker. But Pariser believes that as “gatekeepers” to the Web, engines are obligated to provide a sampling that reflects its diversity. “You couldn’t have a functioning democracy if citizens didn’t get a good flow of information,” he said. “[In the past,] newspapers were critical because they were acting as the filter, and then journalistic ethics developed… we need the new gatekeepers to encode that kind of responsibility into the code they’re writing.”

But until the incentives are properly aligned, Pariser’s pleas are likely toothless. Simply put, it still pays to have bias, if only to delineate a target audience; looking at cable news, the hyperpartisan Fox and MSNBC consistently trounced CNN last year, in total viewers as well as ratings for top programs. Cognitive dissonance isn’t exactly a hot commodity.

Overcoming the huge incentive for relevance will not be easy. Perhaps a government subsidy for objective, circumspect contentmakers (as it is effectively doing with NPR) will help even the playing field. Or maybe Google can learn to recognize the “devil’s advocate” as a possible search preference, and drum up a delightful hodgepodge of thought-provoking banter.

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