The other day I was reading an academic paper on an iPad; the paper had a number of references to Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’. Halfway through the paper my desktop signalled the arrival of an email. On opening the email I had to look twice – the publisher Penguin had sent me a message saying that Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ was available as ebook now. Coincidence? Most probably. But the crawling and searching of our computer screens for activities makes such events increasingly possible and likely to occur.
One company that engages in such actinides to monitor people’s online activities is Google. Recent publications have critically discussed these activities and pointed to the pitfalls for users and customers. Eli Pariser (2011) explicates how Google, Facebook and other companies use the tracking of online behaviour to reduce the amount of information made available to us presenting us with personalised information. Finds on Google Search are tailored to our search behaviour and our interaction on Facebook tailors the News Feed to show information posted by those we interact with, whilst other of our ‘friends’ don’t appear in the news feed anymore. The result is what Pariser calls ‘Filter Bubble’ that makes us to read, watch and listen to more of the same.
Pariser’s book has had considerable coverage in the media’s review sections and on blogs. Whilst its principal argument is appreciated it is has been criticised for not taking into account the complexity of recommendation engines and the practices of people’s search behaviour. If an initial search result is dissatisfying we continue our search without taking for granted Google as an authority that shall not be withstood. We might even try Yahoo or Bing to see what finds they produce. Yet, on the first glance the way in which Google presents its finds suggest that there is an authority at work that provides us with comprehensive, objective and unbiased search results.
For academics therefore Google Scholar often seems to the first and best point of address to search for academic articles. Thus, Google Scholar has made access to scholarly research easy and convenient. You type in keywords into the search engine and it returns a list of finds ordered by relevance. The results link to academic journals that with the appropriate access can be downloaded immediately. Again, the impression given is that the finds are comprehensive and unbiased. No indication is made that over (more) relevant research might be out there than what is presented on the screen.
Siva Vaidhyanathan’s ‘The Googlization of Everything’ powerfully dismantles the view of Google search as providing unbiased results. Without discounting the benefits Google offers us all Vidhyanathan explicates the logics that drive Google Search and the implications they have on how we see the world. Like Pariser he explains how Google Search tailors its finds to our online activities. In producing search results Google not only looks at our past searches but also takes into account what we are currently doing in any of the Google Apps including Google Docs or Gmail. Moreover Google Search and Google Scholar only can find information from sources that makes it available to them.
In terms of Google Scholar this means that the search engine only finds articles from publisher who have a contract with Google to make information from their publications available. For example when I recently looked for literature on German sociology via Google.de I was struck by the fact that I was provided with information from amazon.de and self-publishing sites that hold student coursework but not from the major German publishers disseminating the key German texts in the subject.
All this considered it would seem that whilst Google Scholar and Search might be a good first site to start research it then is advisable to move to more reliable sources like ISI’s web of knowledge and other scientific Citation Indexes. Otherwise it would seems scientific/social scientific research also will be caught in the filter bubble; referring and cross-referring to publications only that Google provides it with.
Eli Pariser 2011. The Filter Bubble. Viking.
Siva Vaidhyanathan. 2011. The Googlization of Everything. University of California Press
Neal Lathia 2011. Blogpost. Blowing Filter bubbles