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Are You Keeping Yourself in an Online Bubble?

The World Wide Web is an amazing place. It provides all of us with virtually limitless possibilities to discover, learn, interact and work. Increasingly, our gateway to this world is through a handful of companies – the likes of Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook. We maintain an identity with each of these powerful players; each online account storing personal information and preferences for the sake of convenience and ease-of-use. A secondary but important effect of this ubiquitous personalization is formation of a filter bubble. It’s important to be mindful of how our online experience can be affected as a result.

One filter bubble you can find yourself in is in the form of search queries. When using Google, Bing and so forth, over time search engines become acquainted with your preferences (such as particular news sources) and may tend to prioritize results that fit with identified patterns. Consider the possibility of confirmation bias when, for example, results tend to come from a left-leaning or right-leaning resource. Perhaps we are all susceptible to reaching false conclusions when we aren’t prepared—or even exposed to—alternative points of view. “Political balkanization” is an increasing problem, but one we can choose to not participate in. The metaphorical view is undoubtedly richer if we take in a wider perspective.

On the social media front, ongoing filtering may similarly promote communication with contacts that hold similar views and keep the same interests. Commonality is certainly important and a big reason we connect with people in the first place, but do we close ourselves off from new people and experiences if these tend to be “filtered out” of our social media feed? It’s food for thought.

Finally, consider the impact of self-imposed segregation into “like-minded” communities when it comes to fact-finding, especially when we explorer complex issues or assertions that come from data that is open to interpretation. One stark example is the anti-vaccination movement. Once in the “bubble”, it may take deliberate effort to escape the filter and access empirical data on vaccination safety and efficacy.

Once aware of the possibility of a bubble, there are several actions one can take. Perhaps, dear reader, you could help family and friends to take advantage of these as well …

  • Turn off personalization in your chosen search engine, at least for relevant searches

  • Perform searches in your favourite search engine in “private” or “incognito” mode

  • Try a search engine that avoids personalization altogether, such as DuckDuckGo

  • Make an effort in social media to expose yourself to alternate views

  • Try, when exploring a difficult issue to “steel man” the opposing view from time to time: “What is the best argument for the opposing view."

If you have further ideas, please let us know in the comments.


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