There has been a lot of worry for a while now about filter bubbles and how easy it is to fall into them until you find yourself in an echo chamber of exactly what you want to hear. You Tube and Facebook have come under particular fire. There are even ideas on how to avoid it in search results using methods such as Million Short.
The problem probably didn’t even originally lie with the entities that made the algorithms (although you would have to think it swiftly got out of control once people realised they could monetise them). Think of a simple matching algorithm.
If person x watches videos with boats all the way through then recommend more boat videos.
You could see how that could go wrong fairly fast. It probably did, and how do you get out of it when your only options are boats? Even worse, would you notice? Would you care? Or would you slowly become like one of those two dimensional characters trying to interpret a three dimensional world.
Half the problem with echo chambers is that we do it to ourselves. In this way society on the Internet has just accentuated the same divide that happens between cities and rural areas. In a small town you have to deal with people you don’t agree with because you are going to see them again. In a city you probably aren’t going to see them if you choose not to so out of a much larger pool of possible contacts you end up with a more like minded group. On the Internet you are never going to see them if you don’t want too and out of a much larger pool of possibilities you can choose whomever you want to associate with.
There are, of course, exceptions in every case. In general though, you go to places that interest you on the Internet and not surprisingly meet people interested in the same things.
Search results and manipulation
There is also the point that the vast majority of search results are boring so what search engines do is not only give you the answer you are looking for but also the answer that will make them the most money. They are businesses after all. But back to the point. Google is famous for being a better search engine when it came out because it found that if it added site linkages into the algorithm then it not only came out with the answer that the searcher wanted but in general the most interesting answer. This differentiated them because previous search results were by and large boring.
For instance if I search for cat on DDG then the top result is cat.com…..owned by Caterpillar. Even though there are possibly millions of sites about cats that have more to do with felines than Caterpillar you end up with the homepage of Caterpillar above Wikipedia. In fact the entire search page is roughly an even mix between the two things that will hold our interest the most. There is no mention of cataract,catering or other words with cat in them and much shorter than Caterpillar. The is also no mention of cat.net, cat.org, etc…
In a lot of ways this works. We do actually seem to want not what we are looking for but instead what we are looking for that is of most interest to us. What we get is a reflection of ourselves. There isn’t actually anything wrong with that as long as we can see the process that leads to it and that is what isn’t happening. That’s the difference between good search results and manipulation.
Self programmable algorithms
What Google and Facebook and the other manipulation companies of the world need to do is to open up themselves to consumers being able to change the algorithms weightings or turn them off. Even better would be the ability to create your own algorithms to suit your self. What we are being fed is a carefully controlled world that uses retaining our interest as though it is shelf space in a supermarket. More shelf space means you see less of other products and makes you think there must be a reason that Space Pops has five rows….they must be better and sell more!
What we really need are transparent and self programmable algorithms.
Have a look at Million Short, it isn’t perfect but it is an interesting idea and gives an idea what search results at least look like when you aren’t being fed the same cultured page over and over again. The webpages that aren’t written to hold interest, SEO, etc…. may not be as exciting but they are a far better representation of the world than searching for cat and getting a bulldozer.