Thursday, 8 November 2012

Avoiding the Filter Bubble in academic search

As you may have read, everything online is becoming personalised. The big-hitters of the internet (like Google, and Amazon, and Facebook) use algorithms to learn what you’re into, and provide more content just like it. This is great when you want song recommendations, but less good when you’re doing academic research – because it stops you finding anything new.

This is a really complicated subject but the short version is this: every time you search Google, it learns a little bit more about you and attempts to personalise your results. So over time the same search will bring back different results as it learns what it thinks you find useful and what you don’t. The result of this is you see the web through a filter – and get stuck in a bubble, only being shown results that are like the results you’ve seen before. This filter is invisible, so you won’t know it’s happening. (And it’s worth bearing in mind, this applies even if you’re logged out of Google – results are still ‘personalised’ based on location, type of computer and so on.)
So to take an extreme example, let’s say you’re a history student, researching World War II. If you keep following links about Hitler and Mussolini, eventually Google will mistake this for you being of an extremely right-wing persuasion, and start filtering out results which are left-leaning! This applies to your general searching that you do from then on – not just for your searching about World War II. So you no longer have the same access to search results as the person sitting at the PC next to you. The internet thinks it knows best what you need, when of course it doesn’t.
So what can you do about this to ensure a neutral, filter-free online research experience? Here are some tips:
·         Log out of your Google account before beginning a search
·         Erase your web-history each time you begin a new day of online searching
·         Delete your cookies (in your browser settings) and disable tracking cookies
·         If you’re a Facebook user, turn off personalisation and keep your data private

You can also search with duckduckgo, a completely filter-free search engine, when you're doing academic search.

The term ‘filter bubble’ was coined by Eli Pariser – he’s written a whole book about it. He did a TED talk on the subject – have a watch and see what you think.

Further reading: check out Pariser’s filter-bubble website: http://www.thefilterbubble.com/.
Any questions about the filter bubble? Leave them below in a comment and we’ll get back to you.

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