I had a post months back called “Who will feed me my vegetables?” about the dangers of social news feeds. Here was the gist:
Consider politics. Facebook knows I self-designate as “liberal”. They know I’m a “fan” of Barack Obama and the Times’ Nick Kristof. They can see I’m more likely to “like” stories from liberal outlets.So what kind of political news stories will they send my way? If the algorithm’s aim is merely to feed me stories I will like then it’s not hard to imagine the feed becoming an echo chamber.
Imagine if Facebook were designing an algorithm to deliver food instead of news. It wouldn’t be hard to determine the kind of food I enjoy, but if the goal is just to feed me what I like I’d be in trouble. I’d eat nothing but pizza, burgers and fries.
This is not just idle speculation. Here’s an entry today at the Google News Blog:
Last summer we redesigned Google News with new personalization features that let you tell us which subjects and sources you’d like to see more or less often. Starting today — if you’re logged in — you may also find stories based on articles you’ve clicked on before.
For signed-in users in the Personalized U.S. Edition, “News for You” will now include stories based on your news-related web history. For example, if you click on a lot of articles about baseball, we’ll make sure that you get a chance to see breaking baseball stories. We found in testing that more users clicked on more stories when we added this automatic personalization, sending more traffic to publishers.
Emphasis mine. In many ways this is obviously useful. But it carries real risks. And I bolded that last line to emphasize the driving force behind these efforts: profit. What you should be reading is nowhere in the equation. Even what you want to read is useful only to the extent that it serves up traffic and ad revenue. Somewhat related…I’m increasingly curious about the possibility for “responsible algorithms” to add a new layer to the web experience for users on an opt-in basis. That’s something I’ll expand on in a future post.