Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Your Search Engine Is Lying To You - And Facebook Is Hiding Your Friends

I've gotten used to the way that the web works.  I receive an email with the word 'baby' in it, and for the next several days I see ads for baby products in my email client and on Facebook.  They track everything that we do, and they share.  For the most part, I don't care if they 'personalize' my free email.

Big Brother, from 1984 by George Orwell
Then today I found something interesting in my mail.  I subscribe to  Every day they send me an excerpt from a non-fiction book (of course hoping that I will click on the 'buy this book' button - If you use the link to purchase a book, delanceyplace proceeds from your purchase will benefit a children's literacy project.  All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity.).  Some of the books are fascinating, some hold no interest for me, but none of them are books that I would know about otherwise.

"It's not hard to see this difference in action. In the spring of 2010, while the remains of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig were spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I asked two friends to search for the term 'BP.' They're pretty similar -- educated white left-leaning women who live in the Northeast. But the results they saw were quite different. One of my friends saw investment information about BP. The other saw news. For one, the first page of results contained links about the oil spill; for the other, there was nothing about it except for a promotional ad from BP.

"Even the number of results returned by Google differed -- about 180 million results for one friend and 139 million for the other. If the results were that different for these two progressive East Coast women, imagine how different they would be for my friends and, say, an elderly Republican in Texas (or, for that matter, a businessman in Japan).

"My sense of unease crystallized when I noticed that my conservative friends had disappeared from my Facebook page. Politically, I lean to the left, but I like to hear what conservatives are thinking, and I've gone out of my way to befriend a few and add them as Facebook connections. I wanted to see what links they'd post, read their comments, and learn a bit from them. 

"But their links never turned up in my Top News feed. Facebook was apparently doing the math and noticing that I was still clicking my progressive friends' links more than my conservative friends'. So no conservative links for me. 

I hadn't realized that they are also 'personalizing' what I see in search engines - and on Facebook.  

I don't like that.  If I am searching on something controversial I want to see both sides, not just the side I might agree with.  

And just because I find George Takei's postings amusing does not mean that I don't want to see postings from the Westboro Hate Church.

1984, anyone?

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