The standard Google search result is dead: why the personalised web may undermine democracy

“The internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see”, says Eli Pariser.

Following up from my post on social search, and how in creating more filtered-personalised search results we get less serendipity, I thought some of you might be interested in this TED presentation from Eli Pasier.

In it, Pariser explores how the personalisation of the web – be it on Facebook, Google or elsewhere – is creating ‘filter bubbles’. Whilst the web promised us freedom from media gatekeepers, he believes that in reality there has been a passing of a torch, “From human gate keepers to algorithmic ones”.

He writes in his book:

“Most of us assume that when we google a term, we all see the same results – the ones that the company’s famous Page Rank algorithm suggests are the most authoritative based on other pages’ links. But since December 2009, this is no longer true. Now you get the result that Google’s algorithm suggests is best for you in particular – and someone else may see something entirely different. In other words, there is no standard Google any more.”

Pariser outlines why this may be a problem for society and democracy, as the web feeds us what it thinks we should know, against what we are potentially really looking for, or perhaps just need to know.

“[…] you don’t choose to enter the bubble. When you turn on Fox News or read The New Statesman, you’re making a decision about what kind of filter to use to make sense of the world. It’s an active process, and like putting on a pair of tinted glasses, you can guess how the editors’ leaning shapes your perception. You don’t make the same kind of choice with personalised filters. They come to you – and because they drive up profits for the websites that use them, they’ll become harder and harder to avoid.”

These ideas take notions of like-mindedness, such as research by Cass Sunstein, a step further, and more out of our control. Whilst many of us might actively try to follow, search for and discover ideas outside of our comfort zone, unwittingly these attempts may be in vain.

Note: For a longer extract of Pasier’s book see this piece in the Guardian.

Google’s Matt Cutts responds to the questions raised by personalisation of search
Financial Times book review of The Filter Bubble by Christoper Caldwell – ‘A dystopian view of online freedoms’

Wajam example screen shot

Searching with friends: will Google’s Social Search help with serendipity?

On 19 May 2011 Google announced that it would be extending its Social Search functionality to the rest of the world after first introducing it to North America back in October 2009.

Google’s Social Search integrates relevant search results from your friends and contacts into a search query when you are logged into your Google account. As they explained back in 2009:
Continue reading → Searching with friends: will Google’s Social Search help with serendipity?

Twitter’s quiet problem

UPDATE 16/07/2009: The problem of appearing in search and hashtags has now been fixed, although it would seem that People Search is still not finding users. Thanks to @crystal of the Twitter Support team for her correspondence. She says that all problems should be fixed by 12:04am PST today.

UPDATED 14/07/2009 (see below).


Twitter, the social media service reknowned over the last few weeks for the noise it has generated, has a quiet and growing problem. Many users are not appearing in search or the Find People tool.

I first came across the issue when @Paul0Evans1 told me he wasn’t appearing in search some months ago. At first I quite didn’t believe him, it seemed so unusual, and checked to see if this was indeed the case (which it was). He has since used another Twitter name to when talking about specific events such as Political Innovation Camp, but it’s a work around rather than a solution.

Just after Twitter Upgraded, about two weeks ago, I noticed a similar pattern occuring on my account. Appreciating that I get this service for free, and aware that what right did I have to complain, I added my query to this support post, which already had 80+ pages of comments, rather than writing out a new support ticket.

The number of comments to date on this post is over 2,300. It is currently Twitter’s largest open known issue. , and Twitter has now closed comments on the post. This known problem support post is still open for comments.

One of the many reasons that Twitter has been so successful in spreading messages rapidly through it’s system is through the use of hashtags (#) and Twitter’s own real-time search engine. As Twitter describe it themselves:

Twitter search is an incredible tool that allows you to find virtually anything and anyone by adding the ability to search for key words, locations, phrases, and more! Type in any word and you’re guaranteed to get real time results.

Twitter users can follow what topics are trending using a number of tools, including one integrated into each users homepage. It was this Twitter feature alone that enabled Digital Britain Unconferences to kick off, for example.

In the past when users have disliked a new feature or if something has broken Twitter users have used hashtags to quickly cause a storm to bring it to the attention of the site’s administrators.

But what happens when a multiple number of users are no longer appearing in search? Their accounts still exist, they are still tweeting, but they can no longer be found easily by other users, or their messages appear to the wider non-following audience. The irony is the problem is a quiet one.

Whilst this isn’t the end of the world it highlights three things:

1. Our reliance on VC funded free tools and how as users we have little leverage to complain, we are not customers after all.

2. Google has some how programmed us to believe that search is somehow simple and automatic.

3. The affects of the problem highlighted above are subtle and at first generally not that noticable, but they are ultimately quite pernicious and undermine many of the democratic qualities of the tool that have been admired so much in the last few weeks.

Below is the email sent by Twitter in response to a support ticket sent regarding this issue.


Thanks for your email. You can search for people on Twitter by keyword, user name, location and more. New: Twitter search in your sidebar!

More information about searching for people is here:

We’re currently experiencing a couple of issues with finding people; if you can’t find yourself in search, make sure you’ve posted updates (so we can index you and your updates.) Profiles that haven’t posted updates aren’t indexed in search.

Profiles added in the last 8 weeks aren’t being indexed by search. We’re tracking this problem here:

Due to high volume, support requests reporting this issue are being closed, as we’re aware of and working on the problem, and tracking it in the known issues page. Please check the thread above for updates or post comments there, and don’t re-open tickets. A solved ticket doesn’t mean the bug is fixed; bug fixes will be announced on the known issues page.

When you’re using ‘Find People’ to look for folks by name or user name, you can only perform 50 searches per hour before you’re limited– this is for abuse control and spam prevention. If you hit a search limit using Find People, try checking out Twitter Search’s advanced search:

If you’re not listed in search and your profile is public, we may be investigating your account for a violation listed here:

If you’re sure that doesn’t pertain to you and you still can’t find yourself or your friends, reply to this ticket and let us know.

Twitter Support

UPDATE 14/07/2009: Twitter Support has just emailed the following, which can also be viewed here

crystal said:

Update: Find People search index should be up to date. All public accounts with tweets posted for more than 24 hours should be indexed. Search is now updating regularly, on a daily basis. If you’re still not listed in search, your tweets may be filtered for search quality; find out more about this here. Search filtering is done automatically, and cannot be un-done by Twitter Support.

A rather defensive response, considering the comments on this issue (now closed) were nearing 2,500. From the tests I have done People Search is still not working and neither is Search. Twitter does seems to be experiencing capacity problems are however, so these issues may be resolved over the next few days.

Again the problem here really is that as users, rather than customers, of the service there is very little leverage in complaining. Twitter is a service that I would happily consider paying for as a Pro User (ie. with additional functionality/features), in the similar vein to Flickr or Gmail Corporate, each of which have a corresponding Terms of Service. 14/07/2009

Are long johns back?

long johnsThanks to mild winters and associations with older generations it’s a garment that hasn’t been mentioned over the last few years, but dare I say, long johns in the UK are back? My anecdotal evidence for this is that I’ve heard the term used a few times over the last week in various circumstances, and of course it is rather cold.

But what evidence online can be found to back up this idea?

Type this garment into and you instantly, and unexpectedly, find that the AdWord competition over this phrase is fierce. Who would have thought there were so many retailers of this long legged, close fitting item?

Continue reading → Are long johns back?