Ryan Leatherbury

Business. Tech. Life

5

7 Ways to Stop Search Engines from Limiting Your Thoughts

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Never juggle dynamite. It’s a safe bet there’s little argument there. And if you do a web search, you’d probably not find one.

But what about areas where there are lots of competing points of view  like politics, economics and theoretical science? Or management style, technology choice, nutrition or fitness. Of course every publication, news outlet and product company has its bias, but there’s something else at work.

What Is a Filter Bubble?

Filter bubbles result from search engine algorithms that learn your viewpoints, and filter out search results that conflict with your preferences. Eli Pariser came up with the term a few years ago and wrote a book about it.

Search engines, social media feeds and apps for news sites have increasingly become more personalized. Algorithms learn what seems relevant to you and give you results, articles and links to sites that reinforce your on-line history. There’s lots of money at stake in watching your every on-line move, keeping your eyeballs on a page and steering you towards ads or the “Recommended for You” section.

The result is that you and I may get different results when we type in the same thing for Google depending on our history. There’s the often mentioned example of how 2 people with different political views searched for “BP”. One saw stock tips. The other saw environmental impacts of the oil spill.

Why Do I Care?

In order to cope with a very complex world,  we’ve become good at boiling down an ocean of information to and clinging to a set of viewpoints, narratives and stories like a life rate.

In a real sense, it’s a survival mechanism.

But this tendency can be very narrowing when a filter bubble is applied in the background. Being directed to more of what you’ve already seen results in a self-reinforcing information loop. You like X, so you see more of X in your searches, feeds and suggested links. Ironic in a time when there’s never been more information available.

Imagine walking into a bookstore where you can only see some of the shelves. That’s the basic effect.

Preferences and relevance algorithms can be very helpful as long as you know when they are being applied. I’m actually a big fan of Amazon’s similar products suggestions or the way Netflix creates categories based on movies you’ve seen. In each case, it’s clear what’s going on. But not as much in other search results, feeds and news streams.

What To Do about It

Start by updating your browser and social media settings for more privacy and less tracking when you want more neutrality.

But to think outside the filter bubble you need to take a more active role, like a good attorney coming up with the best counter-arguments to his stance. The point is not to be so open minded that you go against your core values. Its about making sure you’re keeping a broader perspective and being objective.

  1. Generalize Your Search Terms. A good way to broaden your search results is to use more general terms. Search niches are useful when you know exactly what you’re looking for, but can also create another bias trap during early research. For example, substitute fitness for endurance training, lean nutrition for Paleo diet and alternative teaching method for Montesorri. This helps stamp out preconceptions.
  2. Do a Negative Web Search. Do a negative web search based on your current point of view to get other perspectives. If you are certain that stocks are going to be a great place for your money over the next decade, search for reasons the stock market is overvalued. Or if you’re convinced a low fat diet is the path to health, search for why some fats are good for you. You get the idea. Skim the top 5 sites  and articles that come up and note the 3 main points of each.
  3. Read Amazon Reviews of Books that Go against Your Position. Go to Amazon books and search for books related to the opposing viewpoint. Skim the 4 & 5 star reviews. How would you refute them? Or do they make good points you hadn’t thought of?
  4. Join LinkedIn Groups that Are Not Recommended for You. A diverse stream of content in your Groups view is broadening. Sometimes the best ideas come from the collisions of very different things. If you’re in the food distribution business, join a cloud computing group. If you’re a software engineer, join an investment banking group. Its a good idea to max them out at 50 anyway to increase your network, so branch out and join unrelated groups.
  5. Download the Random App. This app uses a combination of machine learning and “irrationally served content” to burst the filter bubble. One commenter compared it to walking around a good independent bookstore. Sometimes it takes a machine algorithm to fight a machine algorithm.
  6. Go on an Information Diet. Give your brain a rest from the usual content by taking an information diet periodically when you don’t visit your news feed or aggregators. On those days, check the weather and not much else.
  7. Look Up. Take a break from the screen. Put your phone down. Talk to people, especially ones you disagree with. You’ll be surprised what you’ll learn.

And never juggle dynamite.

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Ryan Leatherbury • January 25, 2015


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