by Marsha Rakestraw

“There is no standard Google anymore.”

In his TED talk, Eli Pariser talks about an invisible shift that’s happening online that can hinder our pursuit of democracy and meaningful citizenship: invisible algorithmic editing of the web.

Pariser notes that algorithms and filters on platforms such as Facebook, search engines like Google, and news sites like Yahoo! influence what we see, without us knowing it.

Pariser gives this example: If we both search for something online at the same time, we won’t get the same results. Google uses dozens of signals (e.g., your kind of computer, your browser, your location) to “personally tailor your query results.”

He also mentions that numerous news sites are now personalizing the results and stories we see. “This moves us very quickly toward a world in which the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.”

Pariser says this conglomeration of filters and algorithms creates a “filter bubble”: “… your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online.” He says that we don’t decide what gets in, and we don’t see what gets edited out.

And thus, we can end up surrounded by “information junkfood” and media that doesn’t challenge or expand our worldview.

Pariser emphasizes that if algorithms are going to curate the world for us then it’s important that coders include both an ethical lens and a focus on civic responsibility “… we need to make sure that they’re not just keyed to relevance. We need to make sure that they also show us things that are uncomfortable or challenging or important.”

Watch Eli Pariser’s talk (9:04 min):

Pariser’s talk is an important reminder about all the influencers of what we see and don’t see in news, media, and in our social media pages.

It’s also a useful springboard for honing critical thinking skills and for exploring issues such as the backfire effect, confirmation bias, civil discourse, and how we come to embrace the beliefs we have.