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Breaking Out of Your Internet Filter Bubble


In today’s business world, leaders need to get ideas, opinions, and perspectives from diverse sources. In particular, there are times when we need to tune in to people and sources of information that contradict our prevailing view of the world.

Unfortunately, many of the online sources we turn to for information are surreptitiously moving us in the opposite direction.

According to political activist and former executive director of moveon.org, Eli Pariser, Internet giants like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook have begun using algorithms to determine what we see and hear online. He discovered this when he realized that Facebook had removed all the links to conservative people from his Facebook page – without his permission or knowledge.

Is some evil conspiracy afoot?

Probably not. What these companies want to do is maximize advertising revenue while making it easier for all of us to access the content we want. Only now they have taken it upon themselves to decide what we want to see, and that’s not a good thing.

As Pariser explains it, when Google uses complicated algorithms to determine the results of online searches, it creates a “filter bubble” that screens out everything the search engine thinks we don’t want to see. Or at least buries it so deep in the search results that we don’t bother clicking on it.

Put together all the algorithms (which deliver information to your Internet doorstep based on what you click on most often) from all the prominent online information sources and you end up with your own unique online universe of information. The information that populates your universe depends on your filter bubble, which, in turn, depends on who you are and what you do online.

The problem is that we don’t get to decide what gets through our filter. Yahoo, Google, and Facebook are now doing that for us. More important, we don’t see what gets edited out, so we don’t even know what we’re missing. This moves us all to a world where the Internet shows us what it thinks we want to see, and not necessarily what we need to see.

The solution, suggests Pariser, does not require eliminating the filters. After all, we need some tools for sorting through everything on the Internet. The answer is for Google, Yahoo, and others to give us a healthy degree of control over the filters, so that we determine what gets screened in and what gets screened out.

Why do we need many diverse sources of information?

From a practical standpoint, it just might keep us from going out of business. These days the new product or service that turns our industry upside down often comes from way out in left field. We need to continually scan the world beyond the walls of our business to detect these kinds of threats.

At a deeper level, it has to do with the way our brain works.

The human brain is an amazing organ, especially the newer areas with their higher-level reasoning abilities. Yet we’re still stuck with the “old” brain that helped us survive back when we had to quickly recognize and respond to predators and other threats.

The old brain is a superb pattern-recognizer. Consequently, it tends to look for information that supports what we already know to be true about the world. In doing so, it actively rejects information that contradicts our view of the world. So we get caught in a double-whammy of seeing things the same old way while actively avoiding new information that doesn’t align with what we already believe to be true.

That’s how we can get caught totally off guard when our best customer defects to a competitor. And that’s how we never see the outsider who sweeps into our market and steals our market share with a new product or service we never even imagined.

As business leaders, we need to make a habit of exposing ourselves to divergent points of view. We need to set up systems and processes that expose our employees to new and different ways of thinking. And we especially need to make sure that we don’t let others dictate or control our sources of information. To do so limits our ability to make informed decisions and puts us at risk of letting others control our destinies rather than making our own.

Google, Yahoo, Facebook – are you listening?

P.S. – To hear Pariso’s 9-minute talk on this subject click on http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html

Ted.com is one of my favorite sources for hearing thoughtful, informed and divergent points of view!

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