Search bubbles and you

People, when asked for sources of their information, will sometimes say “Just look at Wikipedia” or “Just google it.”

This is not terribly helpful. You probably knew that. What you might not know is all of the reasons it’s not helpful. These come down to the fact that human beings are as diverse about their search methods as they are about everything else. And then computers complicate things on top of that. Read on to learn more.

Learning: quill on a green background

What’s the basic issue?

Basically, without mind-reading ability (and probably sitting down at your computer), my searching on a topic is going to get different results from you searching on the same topic. Or anyone else. Let’s look at why.

So, what should you know about it, in a few words? (Further explanations follow)

1) The searches you do will probably get different results than the searches someone else does, partly for reasons you can’t control.

2) When you want to discuss a particular site or source with others, you’re probably going to need to say more than “Just google it.” While the precise site address is best, giving people the search terms you used will at least make it easier to track down.

3) It’s a very big Internet out there: the more we can point people at the useful bits, in a human-friendly manner, the better our conversations about it will be.

Wikipedia has many pages:

At the moment I am typing this (late evening Eastern US time on July 3, 2016) the English language Wikipedia has 5,186,592 pages.

(Note that pages will hae changed a lot since!)

Many of those pages are about unique topics, but others are about very similar topics, but have vastly different levels of information. Some have been thoroughly edited and revised, others are bare stubs (the term for very basic pages.) Some show clear signs of multiple informed, cohesive, thoughtful edits. Others are really clearly someone’s pet topic, without a lot of other input or clarifying voices.

So, just saying “Go look at Wikipedia” for a  topic – without discussing a specific page – means that someone can end up on a page like this on on natural magic (a brief discussion focusing on historical usage) with two references and a handful of other topics to look at, or this one about white magic (historical and current uses) with more references, or perhaps the main page on witchcraft (a much longer discussion, covering a range of places and time periods with many references.)

The first page is about 180 words, the second is 900, and the third is over 12,000 words. They’re all about related subjects, but very different.

As you can imagine, these involve very different levels of detail and commentary. Someone who looks at the first page is going to have a very different sense of that topic than someone referring to the last one, even in the places the pages overlap. As another comparison, take a look at the Zodiac pages sometime. The main page about the Zodiac has plenty of information and references, but if you click through to the western sign pages, some of them only have a brief paragraph or two, while others have a great deal more detail, summaries of particular myths, and even astronomical details.

These are only a few quick examples, but some looking around can find you plenty more. It happens in history (one figure has a lot of details, but information about others may not even appear on their pages!) It happens with specific events (the page of an individual involved may have different important info from the page about an event as a whole), and so on. It happens with TV shows – some seasons will have tons of detailed summaries, and then another season will have almost nothing.

Only by knowing which page someone’s actually looking at can we figure out where a specific bit of information came from (and whether it’s accurate or not) or what sources to go look at further.

People do searches differently:

This is a much bigger topic than can fit in this essay, but in short: how I do an online search and how you do an online search are probably different. We may use the same terms, but not in the same order. More likely, though, we may use different terms.

If you’re an expert in a subject, and I’m not an expert in that subject, you may use precise terms and get very focused results. I might get much more general ones, and have to dig around for details.

(Searches for medical terminology versus common terms for a disease can do this. Scientific names for  plant versus popular or folk names. Regional terms for something might be different than standardised ones. There are all sorts of possibilities here.)

Sometimes we’ll get a bunch of the same results, and some different ones – but if we aren’t using the same words in the same order, chances are we’re going to get noticeably different results. Even if we are using the same words in the same order, we probably will get different results, if we’re using Google or several other common search engines.

Search engines adapt to you

Without getting extremely technical, the goal of many modern computer programs – including search engines – is to give you what you want, without you needing to ask for it, ideally with advertising that you also want to see.

Search engines use a piece of code called an algorithm to help the search engine decide which results to show you in which order. (A 5 minute overview of algorithms with transcript. An overview from the Guardian about the ways algorithms can affect our lives.) The same sort of thing controls what you see in your feed on Facebook, or Twitter, too.

Some pieces of this decision are pretty straightforward and reasonable: many search engines give more weight to sites that get a lot of links from many different independent sources (in other words: sites many different people link to because they think it’s good or interesting) and give less weight to sites that are linked to by spammers or bots or other automated systems.

But many search engines (not all) also keep track of what you’ve searched, and adjust your searches based on your searches (and what you clicked on) and other people’s searches, and what they clicked on.

(If you’re interested in a search engine that doesn’t, you’ll be interested in this explanation from Duck Duck Go about their privacy policy, which includes some great explanations of the issues.)

That’s why when you start typing in words in your search, other words might be suggested. Or why if you typo something, it may suggest the correct wording. If you’re searching for something about Springfield, and you’re in Massachusetts and have done other searches about Springfield, it may suggest Massachusetts rather than Missouri (or any of the other many other places with that name)

There are some ways around this (and many search engines, including Google, give you some ways to manage the data that’s stored, delete items, and so on – but your searches will generally still be used to affect the way the algorithm is balanced.

Much of this is what is now often called the filter bubble.

Popularised by a book (The Filter Bubble: How the Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think), TED talk, and other material by Eli Pariser, a filter bubble is basically what it sounds like: when you search for things, those things are used to give you more things like that.

A common example here is “You looked at this on Amazon, here are other things you might like” – really any recommendation service. This has implications both for privacy, but also for seeing things from other perspectives or by people with different experiences.

Duck Duck Go also has a great non-technical and well-illustrated explanation and additional information.

What does this mean for us as users of technology?

Computers are very good at automated tasks, but they’re really not all that good at providing specific recommendations or ideas, and not good at all at sharing personal experiences. (At best, they can help us find other people’s.)

If we’re in conversation with other people (and not computers), it probably makes sense for us to think about being human in that conversation, and sharing information in a way that keeps our humanity front and centre.

That usually means saying things like “Oh, I can’t remember now, but I remember I was searching on Wikipedia for something about the topic.” or “It was someone’s personal site, and I liked other things on it, but I don’t seem to have saved the link.” or “I think my search terms were blue rabbit single horn.” In other words, giving what information we do remember, and being honest about what we don’t remember.

Title card: Why "Just Google It" does't work.

Last edited December 25, 2016. Reformatted November 2020.

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