Tailoring content, or hiding content?

As Mr Pariser’s talk above states, many popular sites, such as Google, Facebook, and even the BBC News over here in the UK, now try to provide methods of customising what you see on their pages, so you feel the content you see is relevant to you. In many ways, this is understandable; they want you to feel you’re getting the information you want, to keep you on their site for as long as possible, and they don’t want you to feel deluged with information and go elsewhere. However, as the talk also says, we’re having a choice taken away from us, as websites try to generate that tailor-made content, which is something that website designers and coders must be careful of, and, ultimately, we as consumers, must ensure is part of our daily diet of content.

Those of us who use the popular social networking site Facebook may well have been sent invites by others in our friends list notifying us about changes made by Facebook in the News Feed section, which provides us with a rundown of what our friends have been recently up to. As the video above states, it seems that Facebook has, without notifying its users, decided to restrict what we see in our News Feed to those we only interact with the most, and have similar views to. Apparently, this process isn’t restricted to Facebook – Google is also guilty of tailoring search results without any input from the user, as well as a host of other sites.

It’s worth noting here that there are some sites that do allow you to consciously control what information comes to you. News sites such as Google News and BBC News provide you with ways of selecting what sections of news are most pertinent to you, thereby tailoring the main news page to suit what you wish to read first. The customisation of content goes further – if you agree for those sites to track your location, they will also provide you with news which is local to the area you are in. This conscious control of information is better than Facebook’s decision to control it for you, without your initial consent, but can still provide the “bubble” referred to in the talk above.

Drinking from the firehose

It’s a common complaint from those using the internet today that people complain of information overload, realising that one person cannot consume all of the information presented to them, and must often find ways of dealing with it. Personally, I agree – I frequently can’t keep up with all my RSS feeds, often find myself distracted when searching, looking at other things, and with a reported 35 hours of content uploaded to YouTube per minute, there’s no way anyone could get through all that (even if they, like me, aren’t fond of watching videos of people’s cats doing odd things). Therefore, we must adopt methods to deal with this flurry of information, and not let it take over our lives.

It’s this firehose analogy which has caused websites such as Facebook to begin paring down our flows of information, and it’s this thinking which makes their actions more understandable. At last count, I have over 500 friends, and I’m not sure I could keep up with all of their goings on. However, this shouldn’t provide a reason for people other than ourselves to pick and choose what we view – it’s a change in our thinking and approach to this information which is required, not a change in the way we view it.

When faced with this deluge of information, the most important thing to understand here is that it is impossible to view it all, and trying to do so will only drive us to distraction. Once this concept has been grasped, it’s far easier to access the flow, read parts which interest you, and not feel bad if you miss something. If you are really concerned about missing vital information, then, by all means give that information preference, but not at the cost of losing access to other information. The serendipity of finding interesting content, which you may not have necessarily known at the beginning was interesting, is one of the things which makes the internet interesting. And, if you’re the first to pick it up, then pass it on – the growing social media web allows us to help promote things which we feel are pertinent, and it’s this way that information can easily disseminate across the web and reach more people. We have a responsbility to ourselves to search out and share information, even that which might be outside our usual comfort zone.

Therefore, in conclusion, while I’m all for providing methods of making sure more pertinent information is presented to us, I don’t think it’s healthy to do so at the risk of losing touch with the serendipitous nature of the internet. By keeping this serendipity when it comes to browsing information, there’s a higher chance of discovery, and, ultimately, using these discoveries to grow as people. Ensuring this happens is not only the responsibility of those providing us with the information and methods of accessing it, but also by ourselves to ensure that we don’t always stay within our comfort zones. If we can manage it, we’ll be much better off for it.

The Discussion

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