Is the information we receive online too targeted?
Yesterday, I published a table of the categories presented to male and female users upon signing up to the Stumbleupon linksharing website. This was based on Jo Brodie’s post pointing out that “science” was only offered to men.
In linking to my table in an update to her post, Jo added:
My concern is still that, because women are expressing an interest in a particular set of categories they are persistently offered (only?) those categories. Give them what they want. Well, fair enough I suppose from a business / advertising sense. But it’s reminded me of concerns expressed previously about social media and the risk of ‘channelising’ everything (I’m not sure that’s the exact word used!) to the point that you only (get to) see what you want because that’s what you go looking for. I can see benefits in breaking out beyond that.
I’d quite like it if women were offered science on occasion – and I hope they already are and that my experience isn’t typical – but I suppose that makes me a nanny state science communicator
This has prompted a few thoughts of my own about what she calls “channelising”, i.e. the phenomenon whereby people are only exposed to information within a limited range of topics that closely match (what they think are) their existing interests.
To a certain extent, it is important, and even beneficial, that we are able to select what information we are exposed to. People have different interests. They just do. Romantically, that diversity is what makes humanity so beautiful, challenging, and complex. Pragmatically, it’s a limited Universe we live in (at least as individuals), but there is practically unlimited information out there which we could potentially consume (yes, consume).
Fascinating though I’m sure it is, the ins and outs of e.g. goat farming in the Andes is relatively low on my list of things to think about. That may change, but for now I have chosen to concentrate on things like playing floorball, and coming up with analogies for bilingualism. Equally, most Andean goat farmers must consider it neither here nor there what volunteers I trained for a hands-on science fair made of the experience.
I think it’s something that’s always been true: people only seek out information that they are likely to be interested in. In the days of paper newspapers, for instance, certain people might only read certain sections (e.g. sports or finance), or indeed only certain papers, because they know what they want to read about, and where to find it.
However, this effect can be amplified in the online environment. Google now offers tailored results to search terms, depending on a number of factors. Supposedly, this is to enable people to find the most relevant information for their needs. The obivous case is language. When an English-speaking person Googles “Schadenfreude”, they don’t want to read pages written in German. Equally, if I look up “restaurant”, having told Google my location (by signing in to my account, for example, or using GPS functionality on my device), I am more likely to find somewhere to eat nearby.
To a certain extent, this is all fine. However, it can quickly lead to more questionable effect. What if you are only ever exposed to content which you are already interested in? You can end up in an echo chamber, never discovering new ideas and only hearing the same voices over and over.
I am no exception to this. On Twitter, I almost exclusively follow science communicators and charity fundraisers of one flavour or another, as well as personal friends (some of whom fall into all 3 categories!). If I only used the links I get through there, I would end up reading only a very small set of materials. Whilst they would be highly relevant, I would miss out on a lot of other stuff, which for all I know I would find equally fascinating and important.
I don’t want to be a “nanny state science communicator” (I love that term!) either. But I can’t help feeling that just as I should try to do more to engage with everything that isn’t science, maybe sites like Stumbleupon could do more to expose their users to new, different, as-yet-uninteresting-but-waiting-to-be-discovered material outside people’s filter bubbles.
If you have 9 minutes, here’s a video highlighting how wide-spread this tailoring of information is becoming: