Google launched the +1 button for the web this week, and I’ll admit my first reaction was, “Oh crap, I’m going to have to figure out what this is so I can sound moderately intelligent when my web design clients ask me about it. Why must you make me learn new things, Google? WHY?!” It doesn’t help that Google also has something called Buzz which I don’t quite understand either, but fortunately no one has asked me about. (Please don’t ask me about it. My brain hurts and I need a nap.)
Writing that last paragraph makes me realize that my reluctance to learn new things probably means I’m turning into one of those old dogs who doesn’t want to learn new tricks and would prefer to sleep in the sun all day. I even took a nap yesterday afternoon on my couch. Woof!
I did some reading and learned that the +1 button is Google’s answer to the Facebook “Like” button. More importantly, it will impact your personal search results on Google. Your searches will feature results that your friends liked, and sites will appear higher in search rankings if they’ve been plussed (plus-ed? plus oned? I need a verb conjugation here. Grammar nazis, please HELP!). I am torn between thinking 1) this will be a great way to make my searches more relevant, and 2) being completely terrified of how this will filter out information I would benefit from seeing because Google will hide it from me without ever telling me about it.
The latter effect is explored more deeply in a book by Eli Pariser called The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. I haven’t read the book, but I heard the author interviewed about it on The Diane Rehm radio show undoubtedly when my MP3 player battery had died. I suppose that’s a filter bubble right there since I only listen to stuff in my car that I’ve heard before. I usually avoid The Diane Rehm Show because as accomplished as she is, her voice sounds like nails screeching across a blackboard. However, the topic was fascinating enough to keep me tuned in anyway. Here’s a TED talk that introduces the basic concept:
Essentially, two people can enter the same search term into Google and get completely different results. In the video Pariser gives the example of two friends who searched for the term “Egypt.” One got news about the political upheaval and the other got links to vacation packages. What’s freaky is that Google doesn’t tell you it’s doing this, nor does it provide options to turn it off or adjust the settings. You might have experienced something similar on Facebook which gives you a news feed that is filtered to show information only from friends you tend to read and like more. Again, they don’t go out of their way to tell you about this. You have to be savvy enough to figure it out yourself. I never knew the extent to which Google filtered my results until I heard the radio interview, and I consider myself to be pretty well-informed about the Internet. If I’m as hip as I presume to think I am, I also have to think the majority of web users don’t know about this either.
Now, I have to admit I’ve found the Google filters helpful at times. When I search for a restaurant using Google it automatically displays results close to my neighborhood without me having to type in “Chapel Hill.” Very handy. I’ve also noticed that WinAmp, the MP3 player on my laptop, tends to play songs near other songs I’ve listened to when I’ve set it to “shuffle,” implying that shuffling music is not the same as randomizing it. This can be good sometimes because I’m more prone to hear songs I like, but I think I’d also like the option of a truly random setting so I’m more likely to hear songs I haven’t listened to lately. And again, this algorithm bias isn’t something WinAmp ever told me about, just something I sussed out on my own.
One could argue that there is so much information available now that filters are necessary for us to have a chance to find what we’re looking for. The question then becomes, how can we find what we’re not looking for? How can we have happy accidents when we discover a song or book or movie we love that no one in our sphere has heard of? While the status of my music playlist is hardly a moral quagmire, the Egypt example above shows that these filters can raise ethical questions. When I search am I seeing only what I want to see instead of what I need to see? Humans are prone to confirmation bias which is our preference to hear information that confirms what we already believe. We don’t like our beliefs to be challenged, although those challenges are what help us to grow and gain a better understanding of our world. As I showed in the first paragraph of this blog, I’m not that inclined to learn about the latest flashy, shiny addition to social media, but I really should be forced to if I’m going to stay current in my industry and understand how the Internet is shaping my perception of the world. Governments in countries like China already block search results from their citizens, but this invisible filtering seems more insidious since we’re affected by it without ever knowing about it.
The initial promise of the world wide web was that it would allow us to connect to people all around the world. We could be exposed to different beliefs and ideas that would personally enrich us and expand our worldview. Now it seems that the web is starting to narrow our views and exclude us from seeing a broader world, even if it helps us better find things already in our personal sphere. The real issue here seems to be choice and transparency. Have we let people know about the filters and have we given them a choice to control or remove those filters? Is it good for our culture for people to stay locked in their echo chambers even if it is by choice, or should we force people to see the things they might be uncomfortable seeing? Who even decides what needs to be seen?
I have no doubt I’ll start adding +1 buttons to my clients sites as they request it and aim to improve their SEO and other social media acronyms. I’m not sure how I feel about it though. I fear that people who don’t participate in the system and don’t make it easy for people to give them a +1 will be filtered out and their voices never heard. By adding these buttons I wonder if I’ll be perpetuating a problem that most people don’t know exists, but do you have any chance of being heard if you don’t play the game?
I dunno, but I do know I’m going to take a nap.