For Whom the Search Trolls

Photo by Ross Williamson

One of my main topics of interest with regard to the Internet is the notion of what my friend, the writer Jeff Turrentine, calls “epistemic closure.” Let’s face it:  when it comes to information, it’s all too easy to find evidence out there for just about any bias or belief we can name; and I am far from the only person to ask what effect this has on our political process.

It seems self-evident that an environment like Facebook is generally an echo chamber when it comes to socio-political issues, and I do believe this plays a role in maintaining, if not increasing, balkanization.  After all, it’s hard to find a more potent ideological brew than a peer group armed with quips and clips that favor one’s established politics.  Additionally, social media tends to increase the number of headlines we see without necessarily increasing the volume of in-depth reporting we read.  While this may not matter much in a macro view (i.e. whether we’ll vote democrat or republican), it does matter a lot more in the day-to-day micro complexities of governance; and I would not be surprised if the 140-character attention span we’re fostering aggravates the tendency to adopt associative political positions. The fact that any given issue can generally be placed in either a blue or red column is not necessarily good for us citizens, but it is a boon to most marketers, especially now that news and entertainment have irrevocably mated to produce a mutant child as yet unnamed. And that brings us to the matter of search engines.

This video from the founders of an alternative search tool called DuckDuckGo touts a small study they’ve done indicating that Google’s personalized search can have a negative impact on our democratic process, precisely by providing the aforementioned epistemic closure. In other words, their initial research shows that Google has enough data about each of us to tailor results on a polarizing term, say abortion, to deliver what we most likely want to find.  Of course, DuckDuckGo has something to sell, but that doesn’t make the question they raise invalid.

This article by Gregory Ferenstein at TechCrunch addresses the issue dispassionately, concluding that more research is required to determine whether personalized search really has any effect on people choosing to seek out information they need, regardless of whether or not it’s what they want to hear. Scientifically, I’d have to agree with Ferenstein; but anecdotally, my instincts lean toward the hypothesis offered by DuckDuckGo.  Multiple times a day, both conservative and liberal friends post articles from news aggregators that sound just a little too spot-on to be taken at face value; and in fact many of these stories are full of holes and editorial hyperbole.  Stepping back and watching the posts roll by, I am reminded to consider the question of who benefits from all these collisions that seem to cancel one another out like particles and anti-particles.

And so, the big-picture concern is this:  a very tiny consortium of corporations, much smaller than the consolidated media conglomerates, own the revenue streams generated by our online activity. In fact, for now, one corporation owns almost all of search and ad service on the Web. So, if it is in the interest of advertisers to narrow rather than broaden our paths through cyberspace, and this winnowing can be made to look like a service to us users, are we in danger of having our perspectives constricted while being sold the promise of limitless access?

Keep in mind that as users we may want the world at our fingertips but that the brass ring for marketers is the targeted advertisement.  While there’s no question that a search for a local merchant or restaurant is more convenient when Google uses contextual data to second-guess what I’m looking for, there are other circumstances in which sorting based on my profile feels just a tad invasive and manipulative.

© 2012, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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