Feeling Lucky?

Companies like Facebook and Google have built their empires on the information that people willingly give away. In return for vast fortunes, these companies then serve back to their customers whoever and whatever they are searching for, according to what their algorithms deem most relevant. The Filter Bubble puts a name to a phenomenon that practically everyone who uses the internet is subject to, and shows the myriad ways that the internet will continue to evolve as a tool to shape societies in the image of their digital curators.

Organizations aware of their potential for harm to the environment or consumers rarely declare it in their mission statements. Google, however, is infamous for its motto, “Don’t be evil.” One of the founders of Google, Larry Page, started out his career by creating the PageRank website. This early search engine returned results based on how often websites on a given topic were linked to each other, all according to an algorithm. The democratic approach of authors collaborating to reference each other’s websites became less advantageous in 2009, when Google switched to a personalized search result, based on a new algorithm. These new results were calculated for particular stereotypes, based on past search history and whatever other personally identifiable information was commercially available.

Big data is being used today to drive advertising campaigns, and ever more specifically target consumer behavior. Facebook, whose unofficial motto is, “Don’t be lame,” tracks the activity of its users on and off of its website, as do many other companies. Based on hundreds of data points garnered through website cookies, social media, and smartphone usage, Facebook and other companies are able to create psychological profiles with a more complete understanding of their audience than the audience even has of itself. The danger of this situation is less that these companies inevitably mismanage the information we entrust to them, than that they return the information that most strongly aligns with the worldview being sought. This is known as confirmation bias. People on the web are inundated with thoughts, ideas, and advertisements that an algorithm calculates they are probably interested in, so the user never has to look for anything outside their comfort zones.

Stock in tech giants like Google, Facebook and others has skyrocketed because they have worked tirelessly to get customers locked-into their software and hardware ecosystems. Their methods of doing so- the algorithms that drive the news feeds presented upon logging in- are unquestionably effective at returning relatively relevant results, based on who a customer knows and what they have clicked in the past. However, they resist full disclosure of their algorithms’ function not-so-much because of trade secrets but because consumers might not like the impression they have created of themselves. A self-aware and unpredictable customer base is the last thing that tech giants want to create, but they will do what it takes to make sure you have access to the information that makes you feel good. Feeling Lucky?