The Search Engine and the Mirror

May 1, 2012
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Andrew Silow-Carroll

“Hey, you’re Jewish? Have I got something for you!”

The ads that pop up as I cruise around the web don’t exactly say that, but they might as well. Thanks to the wonders of website tracking, advertisers and “data brokers” are able to track my IP address as I move from site to site. Google, meanwhile, adjusts its search results according to my previous searches. Since I spend a lot of time on Jewish websites, the algorithms tend to push Jewish-related content my way.

Industry’s defense of this decidedly creepy practice is that it’s a win-win. Advertisers get to market their products strictly to the people most likely to buy them. And consumers get the kinds of ads, information, and services they would find most useful. What’s not to like?

Setting aside the more dystopian concerns about data tracking, however, I wonder if the practice is distorting the ways in which I consume and experience culture. As industries tailor their pitches to a demographic of one, what might I be missing out on? And if my consumption of media becomes an experiential feedback loop — reinforcing who I am by mining my choices and interests — what will that say about my capacity for growth or change?

The Jeremiah of narrowcasting — targeting a narrow audience — is Eli Pariser, an online organizer and the author of the 2011 book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. In it, he warns how search engines and advertisers link conservatives with other conservatives, liberals with other liberals, cheese lovers with other cheese lovers. While the “filter bubble” provides your own unique universe of online information, you don’t decide what gets in — nor see what gets edited out. “The Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see,” says Pariser.

Pariser’s warning could well apply to the Foxification of the news business — that is, an explosion of ideologically narrow cable outlets and web sources, from mainstream newspaper sites to blogs to aggregators like the Drudge Report and The Huffington Post, that allow us to tailor our media choices and filter out the messages that clash with our worldviews.

I see the impact of this kind of filtering on the Jewish conversation. For most of my career as an editor, when people would object to the ideas or opinions expressed in an article, they would either argue back or turn the page. In the past decade or so, however, people are more likely to complain about having to see the opinion or article at all in “their paper.” We’ve all gotten spoiled by the ability to consume information in splendid isolation from one another — or, more importantly, in isolation from those with whom we disagree.

The people most comfortable inside this “filter bubble” are also those most likely to complain that the “mainstream media” either ignore or distort the news they care about. Too often, however, they are really complaining about outlets that dare to suggest that there is more than one side to a story.

Whether we check in frequently with Commentary or Tablet, The Weekly Standard or the Daily Kos — those are choices we make. But the damage is compounded when search engines and advertisers make similarly narrow choices for us. Even if we’re not that concerned about privacy, we should worry about the growing polarization in our culture — and its impact on the way we talk about religion, politics, culture, and the Middle East.

It’s not enough for the new gatekeepers to show us a mirror. As Pariser says, “We need to make sure that they also show us things that are uncomfortable or challenging or important.”

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