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 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!)

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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
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    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.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 45.

    Done the same searches only iPhone & had the same results

  • rate this
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    Comment number 44.

    Morning Rory,

    I like this video because of the really idiotic views of the Advertiser (or mind rotter as we like to call them) that advertisements that "follow the user to other sites" keeps them free. Not sure why he feels that is a good thing that they're tracking people. Personally I use Firefox and a great add-on called 'Ad Block Plus'. Blocks all ads to keep your browsing experience great!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 43.

    Paul - Google track your location by your IP not by a cookie (you can over ride it on the left hand side)

  • rate this
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    Comment number 42.

    I'm a search marketer, this is one of the major directions Google is going, they've been on this road for years now.

    My blog on the subject http://www.growtraffic.co.uk/the-personalisation-era-determinism-and-passive-media-individualism

    Not sure I 100% agree with the filter bubbles idea, people need to understand Google has an agenda and it's to make more money, it's bound to have a bias.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 41.

    As a matter of interest Bludge I also run several websites and when checking search position by just typing my keyword into Google, I see myself at eg position 2 from my own PC but somewhere totally different using another PC so there's obviously some kind of local search tracking cookie installed.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 40.

    A reader of your blog in Holland using the internet connection of my employer. This is a few days after your article but the search results are similar with just one addition in Dutch.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 39.

    I got some of the same results but some differences too. Then again I'm in The Netherlands and use google.com rather than the .co.uk or .nl versions. What puzzles me is why you would click on an ad, personalized or not? - 'I'm looking for banana bread recipes but that hotel in China sounds nice'. I'm generally concentrating on what I came to see and almost subconsciously filter out the ads.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 38.

    I did the wind power search and got the same results as you but in a different order! I use wiki a lot and it came up 3rd in my results instead of your 4th. Again slightly different order for banana bread.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 37.

    Advertising does keep content free.

    A site with 500 visitors a day would make about £200 on click thru advertising if everyone clicked on one advert.

    Advertisers want people to click on the adverts. That's why they are there.

    So if you visit a site with ads, then "leave a tip" for the site owners to show your appreciation. It only costs you a mouse click, but that click feeds the internet.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 36.

    This is a poor experiment. I initially got the same results with the wind power search term, but decided to click a random link on the second page. After getting through to the website, I then went back to the google page and re-did the test. My search results were much different, and geared towards an American audience due to the page I first clicked on being US based.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 35.

    Same results for banana bread. Very similar for wind power - but I got a different result in 5th place (an MSN article above the PDF). Cambridge, UK, logged in user on google.co.uk

  • rate this
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    Comment number 34.

    So, according to the data so far the answer to this question is 'No'.

    Glad we got that cleared up.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 33.

    I am surprised by people who are worried about this. AS 31 says, use a modern browser that does not allow third party cookies etc and other addons like noscript. This is for Firefox of course. I allow cookies to shops that I visit often, but block them for others. I don't receive any tailored adverts. Anyway, it's not surprising that we are in the Matrix is it?. Given the docility of web users.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 32.

    Exactly the same results as you

  • rate this
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    Comment number 31.

    I have Firefox V5 using ABP, Addblock Plus add-on. What are these advertisements I do not get? Oh and also NoScript helps stop the rubbish cluttering the screen. Flash Block stops the moving adverts too. Move to a clutter free zone use FireFox and its galaxy of optional add-ons.

 

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