Dangers of Personalized Internet

As long as internet algorithms favor advertisers, personalized internet will prove to be detrimental to users.

Sarah Kendzior for The Atlantic:

For the next month, I woke up to a barrage of horrifying stories that seemed to signal an epidemic of child torture in America…That’s when I realized: Yahoo had decided I liked child murder.

It’s not that I’m against personalized search, it’s that the algorithms just aren’t advanced enough yet. We don’t have mathematical equation that can tell the difference between real interest and impulse curiosity. Google doesn’t yet know that I was searching for cameras online but bought the camera at a physical store later that day. I may be a white male living in New York City between the ages of 26-35, but maybe I have of the same interests as females aged 36-50 (pinochle, anyone?).

The main problem is that the algorithms were created mainly to serve advertisers. Search results do need to be useful, but only useful enough to keep users from using other sources. However, the money exchange is between advertisers and the search engines, so the algorithms need to specifically cater to ads in order for the search engines to survive.

At the very least, this leaves users prone to a skewed perspective based on previous clicks and pageviews. If a user’s political views tend to be more leftist and Google starts favoring left-leaning search results for neutral search terms, that can provide a false perception of the current political state1.

This bias already exists in the mainstream media world, where the drive for higher viewers and page views create a trend towards shocking headlines. This directly results in inaccurate public perception:

We live in one of the safest eras in recent history to raise kids. Violence against children has dropped over the past four decades, yet the perception that times are more dangerous has made American parents more over-protective than ever before.

As the world of personalized internet experience exists now, it will only serve to splinter us more, widening the gap between demographics, race, and gender rather than working towards greater equality and unity.

The solution will be finding a way to make internet algorithms more organic and user-centric. I do believe it is possible for a computer to someday closely emulate the human brain2 and this “human” element is needed to create an unbiased and beneficial personalized internet experience.

As is stands, all the power is still in the hands of the advertisers. There isn’t much that can be done as long as the advertisers are the ones paying the bills. Until this changes, I’ll keep my ad-blocking extensions installed and advocate against a personalized internet.

  1. If a user is mostly seeing left-leaning results, they may miss out on a huge upsurge of positive right-wing support that may not be covered by leftist organizations.
  2. I’d argue that we’re almost there already.

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