Beware of the "You Loop"

When teaching students about Internet research and how to think critically about sources that can be found freely online, we librarians may at times sound like broken records, giving repeated “warnings” followed by a list of tips on how to scrutinize and evaluate web content. Who wrote this piece? Is it credible? Why?Does it cite any sources? Etc. It is not that we want to discourage students from using the Internet as a legitimate research tool, but rather we simply want to make perfectly clear the fact that not all sources drawn from this seemingly omnipotent portal to information hold the same weight. Broken record or not, I will continue to emphasize these things to students as they are profoundly important to both scholarly and personal research.

But, there is more…

It is a common misconception that, at any given time, when you “Google” something, the results will be the same for everyone, everywhere, pulled systematically from the same vast, universal pool of available information. In The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You, political and Internet activist, Eli Pariser explains some of the ways in which online searching has drastically changed in recent years.For example, in December 2009, Google began using “fifty-seven signals—everything from where you were logging in from to what browser you were using to what you had searched for before—to make guesses about who you were and what kinds of sites you’d like. Even if you were logged out, it would customize its results, showing you the pages it predicted you were most likely to click on.” Just as sites like Amazon and Ebay offer suggestions based on your prior purchases, Google now tries to feed content (not just advertisements) to you based on your web browsing history and personal interests as they are perceived, or “guessed,” by an algorithm.Sure, in some circumstances, being told “if you liked _____, then you most certainly will like _____” is convenient and helpful in making decisions, but what does this mean in the context of real Internet research?In the “filter bubble,” the curiosity of the genuinely inquisitive researcher may be radically curbed. Do you want information that is relevant to your query or just relevant to you?

Pariser refers to this personalized cycle of information access as the “you loop” in which we are all at risk of becoming broken records, fed the same kinds of search results, over and over again in our own comfortable and familiar “filter bubble”a virtual information echo chamber.According to Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, “most people don’t want Google to answer their questions …They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.”This sounds to me like something I would like a cool new app on my phone to do, not my Google search results when delving into a serious research question.However, with the way things are going, Schmidt predicts “it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.” Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we stress the importance of looking beyond the first page of results produced by a Google (or whatever) search. Many times I have heard people misinterpret their ability to get results fast as proof that they are a good researcher. Efficiency ≠ good research skills.

This adds an entirely new element to the practice of critically analyzing our Internet search results.When the “filter bubble” becomes too small and the “you loop” too tight, many topics may eventually not stand a fighting chance at being thoroughly researched online. Indeed, the apparent dearth of information reporting alternate viewpoint of an issue (the stuff floating outside your bubble) and the abundance of information that mirrors the position of the researcher could alone be enough evidence to infer, “More people agree with me than disagree — I must be right!” Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it? The first step in countering this is simply knowing that now, perhaps more than ever, a single Google search will not suffice, and not just in the context of academic research. Pariser warns, “If identity loops aren’t counteracted through randomness and serendipity, you could end up stuck in the foothills of your identity, far away from the high peaks in the distance.”

So, where in the present information environment can one still find “randomness” and serendipity”? Well, the library, for one. Take a look at the American Library Association Code of Ethics. Librarians are committed to building and maintaining balanced collections and helping users navigate information in a completely neutral manner. Most libraries (ours included) don’t have “liberal” or “conservative” sections, only “subject” sections in which librarians will be more than happy to help you navigate or set you free to explore. If you want information on a particular topic, we’ll always do our best to help you find it, but don’t be surprised if in the process we come across something you never would have thought of or even thought we would own or be able to access.

Check out Pariser’s TED Talk in the video below.He explains this all much better than I have here, first in the context of facebook and then moving on to Google searches and online news providers.

Related: SEE HERE. I came across this just today (weeks after I originally wrote this post)

– Todd Wiebe, Research and Instruction Librarian

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