Friday, May 06, 2011

Does the personalisation of the internet threaten citizen participation in democracy?

Yesterday evening I watched an interesting TED talk by Eli Pariser, Beware online "filter bubbles".

The talk discussed the increasing personalisation of search engines, news sites and social networks, using algorithms to selectively present or hide search results, content and comments based on a user's actions.

Pariser raised the importance of the flow of information and news in enabling democracies and questioned whether the fragmentation of the internet into individual views would likewise erode democratic society.

I share his concerns over this trend. When our major news sources only show us the news we wish to see and our social networks only highlight comments from people who share our views it becomes much harder to have inclusive discussions, debates and decisions.

I'd be interested in your thoughts. Are these concerns misplaced? If not, what can or should we be doing individually or collectively to defend our right to be presented with information and news which makes us a little uncomfortable, but well-rounded and able to participate effectively in our democracy.


  1. I was lucky enough to be present at TED when that talk was given. It's one of those talks you don expect to irritate you before you hear it, but that scratches away at something uncomfortable for a long time after.

    While, without argument, a personalised experience is a critical component of usability and enjoyment online, the concern that such personalisation is removing information from the experience that may be of true democratic, informational or personal value is a real concern.

    So, give me my personalisation, but let me tune in the things that are important, rather than having them tuned out for me (without me knowing).

  2. Annabel Crabb's comments today about the effect that such personalisation might have on her articles really drove this concern home for me. If she, as a writer for a news agency (albeit an opinion writer), is getting personalised results when she is researching her articles, there is the potential for it to bias the final article. This means that first hand information and quality sources are becoming even more important for news writers. (This is equally true for many other professionals, including public servants)

    Like Stephen, I think the personalisation is an important part of the improvements in web use. However, I think it's important that search users in the news media, public service and other important social institutions recognise the bias that can come from personalisation, and take care to avoid it.

    (Annabel Crabb article at

  3. What about organisations that use Google as their corporate search engine (like the NLA's Trove)? Will their search results be personalised?

  4. Re previous comment: NLA's Trove does not use Google, but others do.