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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Unfiltered with Marcia Stepanek


Marcia Stepanek, in her post “The New Digital Divide,” argues that we must shift the way we think about the relationship between the web and civic engagement. She begins her post with a few pieces of rather tangential evidence. I think the reason that she struggles to grapple with the forces of division is because she misinterprets the effects certain technological tools have on our interactions with the web. For example the use of net filters and search devices appear to be used primarily for targeted ads and niche marketing strategies. I fail to see the connection between the advent of these tools and people’s inability “to break out of these self-imposed (or machine-imposed) comfort zones” (Stepanek). I do agree that this practice is morally suspect and perhaps an egregious breach on personal privacy, but this seems to be a minor barrier to the larger problems we’re facing.

Admittedly, these filters taint what people are exposed to. But it seems that as a whole these filters can’t prevent someone from finding information if they so desire to. My understanding is that people’s search results are still relatively similar no matter who they are or what they are searching, at least among the top results. It is only once one gets down lower in the results where there is not much discrepancy between hits that results are tailored to the user. While this practice may prevent people from seeing ideas more foreign to their interests it may have some benefits as well. For example, allowing less common but more relevant information to get to people displaces the forces that keep all people looking at the same ideas. Instead of viewing only the most viewed results people are exposed to what they are actually searching for. While it is debatable that google knows exactly what you’re looking for, in my experience, the tool has been beneficial to a certain degree.

The filter bubble’s do make it so a person is less exposed to ideas that they dislike, but all of this really begs the question of the way they work. The information that the filters aggregate is based on what one clicks in the first place. I’m much more skeptical perhaps than Stepanek of the question of getting from exposure to actually transforming people’s ideas. Just because a link pops up in search results does not entail that people will click it or view it. Perhaps in principle one could argue its good to leave the option on the table, but pragmatically speaking it may be of little effect.

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3 Comments:

At April 10, 2011 at 4:00 PM , Blogger Ishaq said...

I definitely agree with the sentiments in this post. It seems as though search restrictions pose an issue only when combined with general oblivion. But that might be the stipulation she's talking about; for every person at a university that is digitally competent, there are many, many more that aren't quite sure how to toggle restrictions or change search parameters. This is of no consequence 95% of the time, that's for sure –– there are only so many possible responses to straight-forward fact-finding Google searches. But, when it comes to researching topics or exploring ideas, for those that are relatively new to using the Internet as a resource, the unfamiliarity with search parameters and the way one might change them can make all the difference.

 
At April 12, 2011 at 4:51 PM , Blogger Sean_K said...

Nice point. It's hard to judge how web filters are actually impacting our browsing habits. They do have a tangible effect on the look and feel of the browsing experience. But clutter is something Web 2.0 users have all gotten used to. I don't pay attention to the ads that appear when I visit Google or my Facebook homepage. Nor for that matter do I put too much stock in my search results. If I can't find what I'm looking for the first time, I'll keep on looking. And the more we look, the more the filters respond and change. Ultimately, they're adaptive to us. Still... I think Stepanek's post is helpful in that it alerts us to the not so pleasant possibilities of out of control web filtration. Personally, I'm glad I got the heads up.

 
At April 13, 2011 at 11:01 PM , Blogger Blake said...

You say, "I fail to see the connection between the advent of these tools and people’s inability “to break out of these self-imposed (or machine-imposed) comfort zones” (Stepanek). I do agree that this practice is morally suspect and perhaps an egregious breach on personal privacy, but this seems to be a minor barrier to the larger problems we’re facing."

I really like this. Blaming our inability to confront opposing ideas in a civic and productive manner online goes far beyond the constraints placed on us by personalized search results. Maybe a great deal of the problem is that we are searching for things that will meet our niche in the first place.

 

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