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Friday, April 27, 2012

Information Filters and Privacy


Most of us understand that Google, Firefox, Explorer and other popular search engines use our search patterns to serve up advertising in a more customized fashion.   Advertisers want to direct advertising to target consumers.  But were you aware that this same technology is also used to filter our news searches, editorial content and even the websites it brings up to answer our inquiries.  It turns out that when we think we are driving a search, the fact is - the search engines are filtering our content – serving us up what they think we like to hear.   The implications are profound.

I recently Googled Lululemon, the yoga clothing retailer.  My first 15 hits were financial analyst reports on the stock, despite the fact the advertiser banners around that content were about 50% advertising of one sort or another relating to yoga.  Apparently I use my I-Pad and laptop more to read financial news then to stream yoga-related content - nice to know.

I took a seminar a few years ago to learn about how a website can be designed to increase its “hits” by manipulating the algorithms the search engines use to prioritize content - duping the dupers.  This is another trend that should give us pause.

Have you ever taken the time to read the information in the terms of use agreements when you download a search engine?  The invasion of privacy required for them to operate effectively would have been an unthinkable request just a short while ago.   What are the options to checking "agree"?

Sure, there are tools available to erase or conceal “cookies” - the trackers websites leave behind that are used for customizing your search content.  But this is largely an all-or-nothing exercise which means you may literally have to go searching to find everything.  There upwards of a million files being uploaded (just on You-Tube) every hour; without these tools we are literally looking for a needle in a haystack.  

I'm not suggesting we stop searching or reading, but particularly as we move into this polarized election season, there is reason to be nostalgic about the demise of the average daily newspaper in the United States.   Achieving consensus at its heart requires active dialogue, including consideration of viewpoints different from our own.  To be served up content selected by an editor, whose opinion might vary from ours is a luxury of the past – content that might enlighten or help to soften closely held views on today’s myriad vexing social, financial or political issues.  The result is that what we end up hearing and reading is increasingly our own thoughts and the views of the paid advertisers, and companies pay to mine that data so as to better sell us everything from shoes to ideas.  So unfolds the information age.

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