What Your Google Search Says About You

MoveOn.org founder Eli Pariser’s TED talk has been burning up the Internet this week, which is something you probably already know about if you read MoveOn.org, or your friends do, or enough people in your social circle are sharing the link to his video on Facebook. In a way, the video itself embodies the theory Pariser touts in his new book, “The Filter Bubble,”also out this week, which looks at how search engines and websites are using the data they gather about our browsing habits to help cater content to our interests. The problem with this, Pariser argues, it that it creates a false slant to how we see the world, feeding us what we want instead of informing us about other viewpoints. It’s like eating only cake and skipping vegetables. Pariser wants us to eat the vegetables too.

For example, are you interested in conservative politics? Google has 57 special signals that they track about your internet use (three of them are public, the rest are super-secret), which in turn will help them find stories that they think you’ll like from right-leaning newspapers and websites when you search for say, “Tea Party,” as opposed to just serving up Boston history lessons. And it’s not just Google. Facebook filters your news feed based on the people whose links you click through most, and Netflix knows that despite your attempts to gain indie cred by ordering up the festival favorite, they’re going to get you the superhero action flick faster (because you’ll actually watch it). His fear is that our dependence on algorithms will eventually make us dumber, and it’s both a fascinating and frightening concept, so much so that I anticipate that the term “filter bubble” to soon become one of those Gladwellian style status topics that people discuss at parties. That, and the inevitable parlour game that arises, “What Search Are You?” in which we all take turns Googling phrase words and let our search results define what type of person we are.