Are websites, such as Facebook and Google, among many others, showing you a warped view of reality when they return content they think you'll like over what you asked for?
Over the past few years you might have heard terms like 'meta-data' being thrown around in reference to targeted web advertisements and similar services. In essence what the term means is information that exists outside of the current context.
For example, when I look at my Facebook news feed the context is me requesting the latest news from people in my friends list. In reality though, the results of this action are the product of a far more complex process. This involves information which Facebook has collected about me, which friends I interact with the most, what content have I clicked on, followed links from, or commented on. These are just a few pieces of information that exist outside the context of the immediate interaction.
It leaves me to wonder, "what recent posts have been left off of my feed?" or perhaps, "Is this increased complexity simply prioritising what we see as important, saving us time?"Why should we spend some time considering the obscured use of meta-data in our online interactions? I am arguing that the pervasive, implicit, tailoring of content we consume narrows our world view.
Tailoring our world view
Last year I wrote about the tailoring of online personalities (see here), well, not only do we often try to control what people see about us, it's now becoming easier to only see what we want to see of other people and the world.
To be clear, I'm not saying the use of meta-data for providing more user friendly and productive online services is evil. I am questioning the ethical considerations we should keep in mind.
Internet connectivity continues to provide incredible access to information and near instant ability to communicate with other people across the globe (I wrote on this too a few years ago, see here).
To go further than my own musings we could look at many stories where the path of the protagonist is one of discovering the world around him is not what they had been told it was. Orwell's '1984', Huxley's 'Brave New World' or Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451' three relatively well known works which come to mind.
Fahrenheit 451 is perhaps one of the most relevant to this comment on meta-data. The story shows an extreme destination of a society obsessed with consuming media, a self-obsessed society of people who are so disconnected from each other (I'll leave it there in case of any spoilers). The picture painted is a depressing visage and as an extreme we should be careful not to wander too close.
I believe it is a useful tool to search based on previous history but there are definitely times I also want to search for just my search.
I think it would be wise to have a policy of giving users notification that their interactions are being tailored and the ability to control the extent and nature of the tailoring. At least under those circumstances we could all be aware of our ignorance instead of being ignorant of our own false worldâyour personal pair of rose coloured glasses.
Sam Gillespie is a composer and computer programmer based in Sydney.
Sam Gillespie's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-gillespie.html