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  • Technology Trend: Finding Things Online

    New algorithms change what you find

    How do you get information? How do you find out about things?

    If you are like most people today, you rely on the Internet as an information source and as a research tool. More specifically, you rely on a search engine, such as Google, Yahoo or Bing. And on the comments and links your friends post on social media.

    What are your expectations for these search engines?

    We have heard for years that we need to carefully check out our online sources. Anyone can publish online, so be sure your source is identified and credible.

    But we have assumed that the best resources - the most relevant or authoritative, those most representative of what is going on today - are going to show up on page one of the search results. We have assumed that the search I conduct will result in the same result as the search that you conduct.

    We can no longer make that assumption. The algorithms used today by social media and search engines are filtering the information we are exposed to based on our own past behavior.

    In 2011, search engines and social media changed what they show you. They have paid attention to your past behavior, what you clicked on (and didn't click on), and are using this information to list, prioritize and remove resources and posts. The search results you see will reflect what the search engine "thinks" you are looking for. Posts by those friends whose links you visit less frequently may disappear.

    Does this matter? In a world where the Internet has been championed as a means to broaden our exposure to ideas and information, these new search algorithms limit us and the opportunity to change and adapt. They can reinforce our current biases and ways of thinking. In a world that is ever changing and in a global society, we need exposure to other people, new ideas and knowledge, and other ways of framing issues. To the extent that the Internet just reinforces what we already know and think, it cannot help us and our society evolve.

    There are times when we want information to be tailored to our wants and preferences. But is the search engine that place? Do we really want to hear only the views of friends, bloggers, organizations and journalists who think like us? Do we want the search engines to decide this for us, or do we want to decide for ourselves when such filters should be put in place?

    James Surowiecki brought the concept of crowd sourcing to our attention -- that when multiple people work on a problem and contribute to our knowledge base, we come up with better, wiser answers. David Weinberger, in his new book Too Big To Know, notes that the smartest person in the room is not a person but the room itself. But to make a smart room, one must have diversity in perspective and skills within that room. Not too much diversity, such that one would be overwhelmed by the chaos and unable to work effectively, but enough to ensure productive arguments.

    As you search for information online, do what you can to ensure that the room is smart, and the crowd has wisdom.

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