In her book Patriotic Grace Peggy Noonan made a point I have repeated often in this blog. During the old days of three major networks we all got our news from the same sources. A small elite decided what was important and reported it. It may have been biased but we all at least heard the same news.
With the advance of the new media which includes more TV broadcasts like CNN and Foxnews, AM talk radio, and the explosion of internet access, blogs and social networks we no longer see the same news. We tend to seek news sources that support our existing view. We read and listen for confirmation rather than information.
Eli Pariser in this excellent TED speech offers a perspective on how the internet and social media make this division of information even worse. Using algorithms to determine what you want to see from your previous selections, outlets such as Facebook and Google feed your bias even more. As he notes two different people can search the same entry on Google and come back with completely different results from the same search criteria.
His argument has merit but it is incomplete. This assumes a certain passivity in the user. Many readers have their certain blogs that they go to, but they actively select their source. If they click to National Review Online or American Thinker they know they are getting a conservative viewpoint just as they would know if they turned their dial to Foxnews. But if one wants to click on the Huffington Post and see a more liberal viewpoint then they have the power to do so. The point is that readers are actively engaged in selecting their sources in many cases.
Still, Pariser makes an very valid point and perhaps it would be a great idea to allow users to complete a profile of what they want to see rather than assume from their last views. Just because I recently rented “In and Out” and “The Bird Cage” doesn’t mean I prefer movies about gay men.
We are more than our habits. It should not be the mission of either media elites or internet algorithms to change our minds, nor to confirm our biases. The new media best serves us by offering options and clarity. To reach this objective they must look beyond mere algorithms.