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Personalised Search: Technologically Induced Confirmation Bias

DuckDuckGo filter bubble site

I can’t unfortunately remember what led me to this page (I think a retweet from someone), but I found myself perusing DuckDuckGo’s marketing site “Escape your Search Engine’s Filter Bubble” recently.

(I don’t have a relationship or particularly strong opinion about DuckDuckGo at this time, by the way, so this is no marketing astroturf.)

It shows you just how search engines deliver different results for the same query, based on the user’s habits in the past.

The profile the search engine has built up on the user through their cookies doesn’t just inform them about relevant advertising, it literally changes the search results.

This troubles me greatly.

Now, I don’t believe I am experiencing this when I search. I am borderline obsessed with clearing cookies and other browsing data to ‘reset’ my browser to the same state after each session. Assuming mainstream search engines aren’t using technology like Evercookie, then I get a generic set of results across different browsing sessions.

Most people don’t do that, which means that most people are becoming increasingly unlikely to come across viewpoints that differ from their own on the web. They have a technologically induced confirmation bias, where, unless they click through a number of pages of search results, they will rarely hear people who might (respectfully, thoughtfully) disagree with them.

Confirmation bias… is a tendency of people to favour information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way.

I am, frankly, frightened at the idea of people never being exposed to a diversity and plurality of opinions. I am frightened of how easy it could be to not develop and nurture empathy. The consequences of that could very well be more profound than we might realise on the surface.

As well as the societal implications, it doesn’t seem the right decision to me either in terms of the technical role a search engine should play. What I previously liked about the ‘old days’ of Google Search was their strong commitment to put the most relevant result first. I’m not sure, though, that delivering the most personally relevant result is the same as delivering the most relevant result for the query.

So how do we address this? Well, I think that media literacy in general is something we need to make a priority. Trying to change the way the search engines work when everything ‘targeted’ is such big business is unlikely to be successful.

At the very least, we need to get the message out to people that this is happeningprivacy might not be the only reason you might want to clear your cookies.

How to access Gmail’s new iPad interface on your Mac

UPDATE: the scrolling fix doesn’t now work, as of 2010-11-08. This appears to be a server-side change and unfortunately I am not aware of a solution. 🙁

I put together a short screencast on how to access Gmail’s new iPad interface on your Mac. If you’re a fan of Gmail’s web interface on the iPad and would like to use it on your desktop computer too, this is a cool trick.

The user agent you need to enter into Fluid is:

Mozilla/5.0(iPad; U; CPU iPhone OS 3_2 like Mac OS X; en-us) AppleWebKit/531.21.10 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/4.0.4 Mobile/7B314 Safari/531.21.10

» Read the rest of this post…

SRWare Iron — A Google Chrome Alternative

SRWare Iron Icon

UPDATE 2010-06-30: At the time of writing, the Mac version of Iron is not up-to-date and is probably insecure. I have stopped using it for now. Hopefully it can be kept up-to-date and patched to a schedule close to the normal Chromium releases in the future.

Google has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1997 and now offer a huge array of online services. One of the criticisms often aimed at the company is centred around privacy. From searches you make on the search engine, to the contents of your email if you are a Gmail user — they have the ability to build up quite a detailed picture of what you do online.

Apparently, the Google Chrome browser itself also does various things which may impact privacy. The browser creates a unique client ID which is sent to Google when you do things such as type terms into the combined address and search bar, for example, and if the browser crashes, the technical information relating to that crash is sent to Google.

If you are someone concerned by the implications of this and maybe don’t trust Google very much, you may want to give SRWare Iron a try.

Iron is a browser based on the open source Chromium project which also powers Google Chrome, but with many of the potentially unwanted features that may impact privacy disabled.

This is a great example of open source code working well — it allows you to enjoy the benefits of the Chrome browser (the speed, interface and unique tab-as-process architectre) while side-stepping things you don’t want.

Screenshot of SRWare iron running on Mac OS X

Personally, I am not enormously bothered by the privacy issues and at the moment I’m pretty happy with a Safari/Firefox combination for my browsers of choice, but if you are looking for Google Chrome, without so much Google, this is worth a try.

You can download the browser from the SRWare website.

UPDATE: The Mac version can be downloaded from this forum post on the SRWare site.

Force Session Cookies on Chrome for Mac

Google Chrome icon

I just downloaded the new Google Chrome for Mac beta. I like to clear out my cookies after each time I quit the browser, so tracking information and so on doesn’t hang around any longer than it needs to.

On Google Chrome for Mac, there is no built-in setting to force all cookies to be session cookies, but you can use this hack to achieve the same thing. After launching Chrome at least once, then quit it and run the following commands in Terminal:

rm "~/Library/Application Support/Google/Chrome/Default/Cookies"
ln -s /dev/null "~/Library/Application Support/Google/Chrome/Default/Cookies"

The first command deletes the cookies file and the second command creates a symbolic link, so that anything dropped in the cookies file goes to /dev/null (i.e. the cookies gets deleted and not stored once you quit!)

UPDATE 2010-01-29: JeanVal reports in the comments that this process works on Chrome for Linux too. The Cookies file is stored at the path ~/.config/chromium, so just adjust the commands above to fit that path.

SearchWiki, Gmail Themes and Keeping Things Simple

A couple of things have been bugging me recently. More specifically, two of Google’s new features they’ve added to their popular services haven’t sat very well with me.

Advance warning – this is a bit of a rant. I’m aware I’m being a little strong about two things which perhaps aren’t awfully important in the grand scheme of things. Anyway, here goes.

SearchWiki = Fail

The first is the Google SearchWiki thing. My friend Chris Van Patten shares my viewpoint on this and sums it up very well in this Twitter update.

It’s google’s job to craft my search results, not mine.

In addition to that, though, I find the new wiki controls next to each search result visually distracting. I mean, yes, they’re subtle, but the whole point of the Google interface is that it is effortless to use and really really simple.

» Read the rest of this post…

Google Chrome

Google Chrome logo

There has been a considerable traffic spike here, since Google announced their new web browser, Google Chrome.

Not because I’ve spoken about it until now, but because it sparked interest in my thoughts on Gecko vs WebKit.

Google Chrome is considerably ‘buzz’-y at the moment, so I thought I would fire up an internet-connected Windows machine and give it a try.

My website in Google Chrome

While from a technical point of view much of the browser seems very interesting – and a very good idea (separating each tab into its own individual process, the new V8 JavaScript engine), at the moment I can’t see it offers much unique user-visible functionality.

Regardless of whether something is technically awesome or not, you won’t get the masses to use it unless they can see a killer feature – something that is visible to them and benefits them.

There are some unique elements to Chrome’s interface – specifically the single address/search bar (Omnibar), but I can’t help feeling underwhelmed at the lack of ‘killer-ness’ about the browser at the current time.

It is early days, though – and Chrome does show some promise.