Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Happily walking into the bubble

It’s Saturday and you’re walking through your favorite supermarket. You’ve invited friends for tonight and you’re planning to have a barbecue.

The first thing you look for is meat. As you’re stepping into the meat section, a freezer pushes itself in your way. It bears a note saying “Your colleague chose spiral sausages and chicken filets last week”. You take a peak inside the freezer, your hand finds the spiral sausages and they disappear in your cart. Never did you notice the beefsteaks across the aisle that were on a 20% discount.

Your hands push the cart further. You also need a proper barbecue grill to feed your guests. Just the other day, you remember reading about one in a leaflet and it that seemed quite nice. But as your getting to the section where barbecue grills are sold, only two of the available models are actually on display. All other are stocked on the shelves, hidden away in massive cardboard boxes. “Your mom bought me just yesterday” it says on one of the grills on display, while the other bears a sign “Three members from your football team bought me last summer”. Unnerved, under time pressure and unwilling to start unpacking the other models, you opt for the football team grill – it is less practical than the one you had read about, but it will work for tonight.

You remember that you also need to get a shampoo. Once arrived in the toiletry section, you look for the shampoo you’ve seen in a commercial the other day. It was produced with 100% organic materials, and obviously more expensive than most of the bottles you’ve got in front of you on the shelf. But your brand is nowhere to be found and all shampoos are screaming in your face “Gregory bought me!”, “Cedric bought me!”, “Dean bought me!” Exasperated, you brandish your arm and send bottles flying. In the last corner of the shelf, you find the brand that you were looking for. You cautiously put the trophy in your cart and your glimpse goes back to the other bottles, still scattered on the floor. You believe you can faintly hear them shriek “but your friends also bought us, why wouldn’t you do the same?”

Google +1 works with the same system as your shopping adventure. As you are searching information on the internet, Google puts you into a bubble of friends’ recommendations that obscure your view upon other options. The next time you search something, your friends' recommendations appear on top. This might not seem so much of a problem at first sight – isn’t it practical to have your social network prepare your decisions?

But what happens if you’re a Parliamentarian with a day to work out your position on prenatal diagnostics? Would you trust your social network enough to blend out contrasting opinions? What happens if you’re a journalist, looking for speedy information on the revolution in Yemen? Can you trust your social network to have closed all the information gaps?

The European Commission is currently investigating if Google illegally downgraded external services in its search results. By accepting +1, we would allow Google to upgrade information that we are prone to like and downgrade information that we’d likely oppose. Democracy doesn’t work like this.

Update: For more about the importance of global information and knowledge management, you may listen to this podcast. Google is certainly the fundamental player in this business.
Update II: Facebook has not paid me for writing this post.  
Update III: I've just seen that Blogger now added the +1 button to my me a favor, don't use it.   
Update IV: To see my love for Google as a research tool, see this more recent blogpost.

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