Has Google killed Serendipity?

Has Google killed Serendipity?


Tuesday, February 21st, 2012 at 9:00 am

Cassandra Moore

Cassandra Moore, PhD is the Director of User Experience Strategy at Piehead

If you use anything Google, including Gmail, you probably received notice of Google’s new privacy policy and terms of service.  You may also be privy to the controversy surrounding this change. Google says combining your information across its products will help serve up exactly what you’re searching for.  Some see this “trans-product” information collection as an invasion of privacy.  Many news sources like Forbes, Gizmodo, and The Washington Post have covered the different sides of the argument.  You may have even contributed your own thoughts.

But this post isn’t about privacy.  It’s about serendipity – the promise of the internet and whether we can, or even want, to realize this promise.

The promise, of course, was that the internet would put the collective knowledge of the world at our fingertips.  We could find information about anything imaginable, and perhaps about things we couldn’t imagine.  The internet was to be a giant web; where one idea would lead us to another and another.  Some of these ideas would be novel, thereby challenging our beliefs and expanding our understanding of the world.

However, in a TED talk, Eli Pariser warned that the very search algorithms that give us personalized results are also reducing that giant web to a “web of one”.  By basing what we see on what we’ve looked at before, nothing unusual is revealed.  Rather than broadening our worldview, the internet is delivering only perspectives that are familiar and safe.  To make matters worse, in Pariser’s view, we aren’t even aware of what we’re missing.  We only see what gets in; we don’t see what’s left out.  Confirmation without challenge!

What we need, Pariser claims, is a way of determining what gets in and what doesn’t.  This leaves us open to new ideas. The assumption being, of course, that we would open the spigot and welcome a flood of disparate perspectives.

But would we really?  Or are we happier to have an internet that serves up just what we expect?

We choose friends who share our values and belief systems. If we’re socially liberal we read the Huffington Post, if we’re conservative we watch Fox news.  We seek out information that confirms our beliefs and we discount information that contradicts them.  Psychologists call this the confirmation bias.  We all do it.  We think of ourselves as rational beings that gather all the evidence and weigh it dispassionately, but in reality we select information and selectively attend to information that supports our worldview.

So maybe serendipity is overrated.  Privacy issues aside, Google may be doing us a favor by serving up information tailored to our palate.  Perhaps the promise of the internet is something we think we should want rather than something we actually want.

What do you think?