You Are What You Search

In early December 2009, Google announced on their blog titled “Personalized Search for Everyone” that they would be using 57 “signals” derived from your previous searching behavior in order to predict the sites you were most likely to choose in your search. Netflix, Yahoo, Facebook, and YouTube, to mention just a few, use similar predictive Internet filters based on who you are, past searching behavior, and limiting hits to what fits your profile. Eli Pariser in his book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, describes the result as “invisible autopropaganda-indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desires for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.” A space outside our own comfort zone where there is less room for those chance encounters that bring insight and learning.

Cass Sunstein, in his book, Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge, describes the problem as information cocoons-“communications universes in which we hear only what we choose and only what comforts and pleases us.” Where we choose to get our information, what we choose to read or listen to, and the avoidance of those channels that are outside our own comfort zone. As Pariser reminds us, “Creativity is often sparked by the collision of ideas from difference disciplines and cultures.”

Don’t believe it? Test it yourself, as I did last week with two colleagues. Pick a topic and do a Google search. Ask a couple of other people to do the same search. Compare your results.


PFC Gladys Bellon, one of the 27 WAC switchboard operators, and Sgt. Robert Scott test lines in the frame room of the Victory Switchboard, 7/15/1945,  National Archives Identifier 199010


So, what can you do? Pariser suggest adding new websites to your repertoire-“varying your path online dramatically increases your likelihood of encountering new ideas and people.” Develop a basic understanding of algorithmic literacy and use sites that give users “more control and visibility over how their filters work and how they use personal information.”

Happy searching!

One thought on “You Are What You Search

  1. I sometimes search for a topic using several different browsers, including Opera, to see if I get different results. I usually do. This is especially handy when searching for travel deals; travel websites can vary pricing based on how many times you’ve searched for a trip–if they see you’re interested (because you’ve looked up a specific trip several times) they will bump up the price by a few dollars.

    The underlying algorithms are based in part on research into concepts such as “sensemaking,” trying to figure out how people make mental connections based on what they already know. And in turn, these relate back to the development of library catalogs and their “see also” references.

    It’s good to be aware of what’s going on when you perform a search, especially given the use of ad-driven searches. It’s amazing to me how you can still enter something that seems like an obvious search term and you’ll get results that have nothing to do with what you’re looking for. The algorithms still aren’t perfect.

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