Are we trapped in our own web bubbles?

 

Rory Cellan-Jones tests the theory that personal filters are inflicted on us when we use the internet

Is the internet entering the era of personalisation, where web firms know so much about us that they are able to serve us up a view of the world which is like looking in the mirror?

That's the argument of Eli Pariser's book The Filter Bubble, which we explored in a film for Newsnight on Tuesday evening.

Mr Pariser says web giants, from Google to Facebook to AOL, are racing to gather more information about our likes and dislikes so that they can send us targeted advertising - which will prove more valuable to them.

He fears this will mean that we don't get to see information that challenges our world view, and will ultimately be bad for democracy - if you're an American in favour of gun control, for instance, you will tend to see information that reflects your views, while members of the National Rifle Association will be served up sites that chime with their stance.

But Sam Barnett, whose advertising technology firm Struq helps to track and target consumers according to their habits, told us that personalisation was a positive force.

He says that better targeted advertising is vital to the economics of the web - and that will mean that we can all go on enjoying the free services we get now.

We also tested an example of personalisation that Eli Pariser cites in his book. He found that Google's personalised search system, switched on for everyone at the end of 2009, meant that two people doing identical searches got very different results.

He cites an example where two people from the same area of the United States search for BP - one finds investment information, the other news about the oil spill.

I did a number of Google searches - then visited two neighbours and asked them to type the same terms into the search engine. Lo and behold, they confounded the Pariser theory and came up with identical results to mine.

Here are the top links we all found for the term "is wind power economic?" and then "banana bread" .

Screengrab of search results for banana bread
Google search results for 'Is wind power economic?'

Maybe three people in the same street were too similar - in location anyway. So let's try to crowdsource this experiment. Try the searches yourself and let us know whether you too get the same results as mine.

 
Rory Cellan-Jones, Technology correspondent Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 50.

    I also feel the bubble is there, but it is obviously hard to prove it. There are so many variables that may influence what gets shown to whom. How about getting a written statement from Google that both authenticated and unauthenticated users do get unbiased search results no matter what?

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    Comment number 49.

    Cant believe it!!! I taught a lesson on this about a month ago having seen the video of Eli on Tedd - Seems I am genuinely ahead of the game. We received 360 degree safe accreditation as a school about two or so months ago - the filter bubble definetly exists - rory - you need to do a feature on our school (unashamed plug!)

  • rate this
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    Comment number 48.

    oooOOh get you Rory with your Chromebook! I want to try one :)

  • rate this
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    Comment number 47.

    Similar results; fifth website for wind power is "www.msnbc.msn.com/.../wind-power-battling-economic-headwinds/ " instead of the PDF on yours (Wind power in the US)- no images results but websites are the same; though I thought Google worked on how many "clicks" or visits a website has?
    Either that or Google has seen this blog and adjusted for it?! [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 46.

    Is internet advertising getting more subtle? About time. I wonder how much the Qatar Foundation are paying the BBC to introduce me to Dr Bakr Nour every time I click on a video clip. The main effect of this repeated loss of 14 seconds of my life is a completely irrational hatred of a foundation with which I have no obvious connection. I wonder if advertisers ever research their negative effects.

 

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