Clippings: News on the Web gets too personal

My dad and I have a lot in common. We were both born and raised in Iowa by Roman Catholic parents. We both went to college and got post-graduate degrees. We both take pleasure in being fathers, enjoy eating peanut butter, prefer manual transmission cars.

What we don’t have in common is the news we read. And that’s not just because we have easy access to different print newspapers given the fact that he lives in Iowa and I live in Vermont.

What I’m talking about is the news we read online. Yes, on the Internet, that great electronic leveler that not long ago was praised as the technology that would allow the peoples of the world to effortlessly share information across borders and vast distances, turning the big blue marble into a global village where we could all learn about each other and gain some measure of understanding that would climax in a worldwide sing-along of “Kumbaya.”

 Turns out, though, that sharing isn’t as easy as they taught us in kindergarten. When there is more new material published on the World Wide Web each day than one can ever hope to consume in an entire lifetime, how is a conscientious person interested in human society as a whole ever supposed to whittle down what he or she should read or watch or listen to in the limited amount of time available?

There are the websites for news outlets we already know and trust — nytimes.com, npr.org, maybe foxnews.com? But if you stumble upon a topic about which you want to learn more, say, education reform or agriculture policy, are you going to visit websites from several major metropolitan areas around the country and then hit the top .gov sites that come to mind and then surf the BBC website for some international perspective? Of course not, you’re going to Google it.

Here’s where the problem starts. Google doesn’t present the same news in the same order to my dad as it does to me. It likely doesn’t present the same news to any two people.

Let’s take “education policy.’ Earlier this week I used Google to search that phrase and my dad in Waterloo, Iowa, did the same at about the same time. The top story that Google presented me was from a Tallahassee TV station about applicants for the Florida Education Commissioner job; for Dad it was a New York Times op-ed on student testing. Admittedly there was overlap; three of the 10 on my first page of results were also among the 11 on Dad’s first page of results. But I clicked through five pages of my results and never was offered the Times op-ed that was at the top of Dad’s list. And positioning is important — most people never read what is beyond the first page of what Google offers, that’s why advertisers covet that page so dearly.

The disparity between the news Dad and I had thrust in our direction only grew when we both searched the term “agriculture policy.” We both got the same top story from the Vancouver Sun on backyard gardening in Edmonton, Alberta, but aside from what appeared to be an advertorial from Pepsi, we didn’t get any of the same “agriculture policy” stories pushed our way.

Why are Dad and I getting different view of the world presented to us? It’s called personalization; many Internet companies — not just Google — tweak the Web pages they serve you based on your previous clicks on their sites and other criteria. I heard recently that when a search request is initiated Google looks at 57 different criteria — what kind of computer you’re on, your browser, where you are physically located, etc. — and bases the results on that information. And it’s not just Google; personalization is rampant on the Web, including at Yahoo News, the Times, and, of course, Facebook.

Honestly, the software behind this is kind of amazing. But the problem is that it shoves us out of the mainstream and into our own personal spheres. Out of a place where we have to learn about things that make us uncomfortable and into a place that doesn’t challenge our carefully constructed visions of reality.

And we, as a society, need to have some shared sense of reality if we are going to all hang together. There needs to be a mainstream. We’ve seen glimpses of a world where small groups or individuals have become so insulated that they think they are the mainstream. If they all watch the same news on TV, look at the same websites, chat online with the same friends, why wouldn’t they think they are the mainstream?

I’m not pining and whining for a time when only three major TV networks went a long way toward creating a mainstream of public opinion. That left out a lot of voices. But the opposite — the echo chamber where we only hear a limited number of voices based on what we’ve already been listening to — is equally dangerous.

What’s the remedy? It’s got to come from the makers of news websites — and from us. Google, Yahoo, NYTimes.com and all the rest need to design the software that figures out what information to serve readers so it is able to give us the veggies along with the red meat and dessert. It wouldn’t be so bad if Google made sure that the results of every news search included a hard news story from a big, mainstream news source on the first page.

As consumers and citizens, we also have to take action. First, teach our children to be skeptical readers and watchers of the Internet. We need to make an effort to search out not just news and information from sources with which we agree, but from sources with which we don’t. We need to exercise our brains and practice using our judgment when surfing the Web, just as we would when we’re paging through a print newspaper.

If not, we’ll be in danger of turning into a nation of clubs, each made up of a single individual. And I’d hate to think Dad and I couldn’t be in the same club.


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