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« BFTP: And who needs tech skills? | Main | Amazon knows what you're reading - so what? »

Google knows what you're looking for - so what?

egocasting: Reading, watching, and listening only to media that reflect one's own tastes or opinions. -Word Spy

What ties all these technologies [iPod, TiVo, etc.] together is the stroking of the ego. When cable television channels began to proliferate in the 1980s, a new type of broadcasting, called “narrowcasting,” emerged—with networks like MTV, CNN, and Court TV catering to specific interests. With the advent of TiVo and iPod, however, we have moved beyond narrowcasting into “egocasting”—a world where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear. We can consciously avoid ideas, sounds, and images that we don’t agree with or don’t enjoy. As sociologists Walker and Bellamy have noted, “media audiences are seen as frequently selecting material that confirms their beliefs, values, and attitudes, while rejecting media content that conflicts with these cognitions.” Technologies like TiVo and iPod enable unprecedented degrees of selective avoidance. The more control we can exercise over what we see and hear, the less prepared we are to be surprised. It is no coincidence that we impute God-like powers to our technologies of personalization (TiVo, iPod) that we would never impute to gate-keeping technologies. No one ever referred to Caller ID as “Jehovah’s Secretary.” Christine Rosen, "The Age of Egocasting," The New Atlantis, Number 7, Fall 2004/Winter 2005, pp. 51-72.

Your filter bubble is your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But you don’t decide what gets in — and more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out. Eli Pariser's TED talk, Beware online "fliter bubbles" extends ego-casting

Alan November at ISTE 2012's SIGMS Forum shared bits of the Pariser's TED talk quoted above - and his personal concern about how Google uses one's personal search history to select only search results that adhere to one's interests and political values. Pariser and November both worry that showing only results that agree with the searcher's present belief system will result in the country will be come increasingly ideologically polarized.

As Rosen's nearly 10-year-old quote above suggests, selective information accessing is not a new concern. When the Internet started sending us far more information than was possible to digest, all of us necessarily developed strategies to select what we viewed and read. And naturally, we tended to select authors, pundits, news sources, blogs, etc. with whom we shared common interests and, in many cases, common values. Our own ed-tech and library PLN's are often referred to as "echo chambers."  

What is different today is that this selection process is being done for us by Google, Yahoo! News, and other search engines - in a somewhat clandestine, or at least not well publicized, fashion. Their motive, of course, is to increase brand loyalty by providing "better" search results which then increase their advertising revenue. Not unlike Amazon and the local library mentioned in the last post.

I am not quite as horrified as November and Pariser at this latest wrinkle in a long trending situation.

  • Historically, all news sources have had political leanings with many cities having two or more dailies that reflect different views.
  • We may limit the amount of information Google collects about us (and should be teaching our staff and students how to do so as well). It takes a bit of digging, but it is simple to turn off one's "web history" and control other privacy settings in one's personal Google account (see Google Web History privacy FAQ).
  • If very concerned, a search can be conducted on Google without logging in at all.* 
  • If you are logged into a Google Apps for Education account, your information is private as well. (see Security and Privacy)
  • It's easier than ever to purposely find and learn views and values that may differ from one's own.
  • "Customized" search results do save one from wading through a lot of stuff that simply is not of interest. I don't want or need to see news or adverts about women's clothing, hunting rifles, or the plight of endangered mountain goats in Lower Slobbovia. It's in Google's best interests to be effective in providing the returns I like and want. 

Genuinely curious people have always sought to learn all sides of issues. While I lean somewhat to the left of center politically, I consciously seek the writings of conservatives - David Brooks, George Will, and Cal Thomas for example. - Sorry, I can't bring myself to listen to Rush.) For those of my "older-than-dirt" generation, the newspaper in print (or print style online layout) exposes one to a wide range of information and opinions. And despite what some conservatives believe, NPR does a pretty fair job airing multiple views of most issues. 

Decrying (or limiting) Google's customization of search results will not result in a less divisive political climate, I'm afraid. But good teachers and librarians teaching students how detect bias when evaluating sources of information, along with the skills to browse more privately, just might.


*Online entities can draw some conclusions about you without you having to log into their site. Your location, type of computer, and type of web browser all impart some information about you. For example, since I access the web using a Macbook Air running Chrome from a lake in Minnesota, Google already knows I am a manly guy of above average intelligence, exceptional good looks and great wit. They know me so well.

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Reader Comments (3)

You are a better man than I (so what is new?) to seek out the other side of (political, in particular) issues. I've thought about this and have seen my own filter bubbles at work for some time. It is so easy to use my Netvibes or Google Reader to feed me only the information that tends to validate my personal beliefs. One of the reasons why my decline in reading newspapers (replaced by Google News and CNN online, for example) or magazines (various Web sites) has given me concern. At least when I was reading paper issues of the news I was hit with headlines that covered a variety of viewpoints. Now the headlines generally tell me what I want to hear. That has nothing to do with Google or my Mac -- it has to do with (a) that I've become a lazy consumer and (b) needing a way to cope with all of the information coming my way

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFloyd Pentlin

I have noticed more and more that spam emails are coming to me with similar subjects related to recent searches I've completed in either Google, Amazon, or in other ways. My initial reaction was to think it was a coincidence, but more and more I have realized that if I do a search on a specific topic (particularly a relatively unusual one) I will get a bunch of emails over the next few weeks with related subjects to my search. I think this is rather sneaky because when I see the subject heading I am lead to believe that this just might be a real email related to my search. Isn't technology amazing?

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaurie Conzemius

Hi Floyd,

Your last comment, "needing a way to cope with all of the information coming my way" faces all of us. I am not intentionally better at this, but I do think I am lucky to have a local paper that seems to go out of its way to provide a balanced editorial section. I still love that old paper format for my news.

Take care,


Hi Laurie,

I've not noticed this, but then I have my privacy settings on high for Google searches. I wonder if the effectiveness of this may wear off as people become desensitized to the bombardment of "personalized" ads?

Good seeing you at the MEMO leadership conference. I thought it was a productive day.


July 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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