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2 October 2013

Filters isolate Internet users

The Internet’s infinite pages of data are known as the World Wide Web for a reason. It’s supposed to serve as our global connection to all of the information we desire – and even the information we don’t.

But the Internet has transformed, and technology companies can control the flow of information without us even realizing it.

On Facebook, posts from friends who don’t share the type of info that a person typically seeks out, are often filtered out. Google search results also vary based on a preference history stored in one’s Google account settings. The emergence of such algorithmic editing on the Internet reduces connectivity and access to diverse perspectives.

The Internet is valuable because it exposes people to new sources of information and points of view. We learn by exchanging ideas and grow by encountering notions with which we don’t necessarily agree. Instead, these “filter bubbles” – or unique personal universes of information that we live in – may hinder progress in the long run.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims that he believes connectivity to be a human right – and the majority of The Miami Hurricane’s editorial board has expressed its agreement. Then why is it that Facebook uses algorithms to filter news feeds and restrict access to a wider pool of information? That’s not the definition of connectivity.

It’s not that these companies have any malicious intent, it’s simply strategic. For one thing, tailored content and a targeted consumer base help boost advertising revenue. For another, companies may think they’re giving us what we want.

However, sometimes it’s not a matter of what we want to know, but what we need to know. Websites like Tumblr, Reddit and StumbleUpon reflect Internet users’ emerging desire to discover new tailored content. But this perpetual re-enforcement is dangerous.

It’s hard to cultivate new interests or ideas if we’re only exposed to things we enjoy. If encyclopedia entries were organized according to individual interests rather than alphabetically, nobody before the age of the Internet would’ve learned anything new or unusual.

Positive changes emerge out of discoveries that can occur given access to more information. Still, it isn’t realistic to suggest that we abandon tailored content entirely. Filter bubbles and optimized results can be both convenient and entertaining. Personalization should thus be an option for users – modifiable through easy-to-find settings – but not forced upon them.

Don’t tell us what’s interesting. It’s a virtual journey to find out for ourselves. No filter needed.

 

Editorials represent the majority view of The Miami Hurricane editorial board.