Out of Site Out of Mind:
The Rampant Desire for Personalized Digital Media Exposure
It began innocently enough, I suppose. I could go back to newspapers and even as far back as newsreels that played before movies back in the day. I could trace the steps of the advent of the digital age and the shift in American consumer tastes spurred on by the growing outcry calling for more news distilled in to short bites and clips so as to stay abreast of what was going on beyond our purview. I could go there, but I think I want to start more recently with the very modern form of news as we know it. Yes, there are papers which no one really reads anymore, but with the undeniable power of aggregate news sites battling demographic targeted broadcast and cable news channels, I think we might have gone a touch too far. Digital ratings-based advertising coupled with the algorithmic world that now surrounds our every waking moment makes for a dangerous cocktail of inadvertent censorship and willing non-participation that we have created and embraced, filtering content to the point that we are now able to literally shape the world that we allow to be known to us.
The most subtle, and probably the most rewarding, form of filtration really goes on without our consent; algorithms. Algorithms are like open-ended lines of code and equations that power some of the most wildly popular and engrossing forms of media entertainment and access. Your TiVo has them. Netflix, Hulu, and iTunes wouldn’t really even be the programs that they are without them. As you rate, record, listen to, or watch something, a little line of code is having a circle jerk with all the information therein. As you rate a movie five-stars on Netflix, that information, all the defining aspects and genre information of said movie, is being run through a program and it is able to spit out similar movies and TV shows which it will bet that you like. It also takes that information and begins to eliminate from your view all the movies you won’t like. So even as you are taking in media, companies and corporations have decided on your behalf what you want to be exposed to from that moment forward. There is no going back even after watching one TV show or buying one single song on iTunes, your tastes will be extrapolated to an almost pornographic level and what makes it to your eyes and into your song catalog will now be censored for your viewing pleasure, courtesy of Faceless Entity, Inc.
What also exists is the wonderful world of personalization. Oh, this glorious form of self-expression extends from the iPhone case to how you get your news. Well, thanks to the geniuses of Let Them Eat Cake, LLC; you can now personalize everything news related from your NYTimes.com homepage to your myESPN.com homepage. Gone are the days of all relevant news and information getting to you. No, now you can get only the news that matters to you. So do away with local stories about government, national stock information, foreign news, and fuck cricket scores or LPGA rankings; those aren’t real sports anyway. Now you can get just the news you want to know, not what you NEED to know. The paper was nice because it was all there for you to read or not to or even to not want to read but be interested after skimming a headline. Screw that shit, I don’t even want to be bothered with crap that doesn’t amuse me. Just simply set up your page with a few ticks of boxes, a couple simple questions, and a few loading pages later we have successfully ousted even being bothered with anything that doesn’t get my brain all riled up like Anthony Weiner’s Jockey shorts.
Most disturbingly I have found that this is also happening to us in our search for knowledge. At it’s best and most ideal the internet is simply a wealth of knowledge. You can learn quite possibly anything on the internet. (I have recently been toying with the idea of writing a book about how I taught myself how to pass the California Bar Exam and other ridiculous accomplishments through free information on the web) One might think that portals to this wealth of knowledge should have no filtration or any oversight beyond what a parent is allowed to limit from the innocent minds of their progeny. Alas, this is not the case. Google for one will filter and order the news, unless you specify otherwise in “search settings,” according to previous methods of searching. So, based quite possibly on the sites you click on and the hours you spend searching for nutshot videos or dramatic squirrels, this could effect the outcome of a search on struggles in Tunisia for a freestanding and non-corrupt post-revolution government. Those two search-types seem independently exclusive, but algorithms at work in search engines kick back to you what they thinks you will want to see, not what might be most relevant or even the most up-to-date information. I for one get wikipages with almost every search I do because I went on a tear over the wikileaks and warlogs.*
Is any of this dangerous on it’s own? I think it certainly could be innocent if any of this existed wholly separate from the rest. Your Netflix preferences are nice, you like when TiVo gets it right, and you like that iTunes can make you hip to a new sound not unlike the other sounds you already like. Hey, so do I! I don’t mind my tastes that make me an individual broken down in to key numeric values and variables, fed into a machine, and then the very tastes and preferences that make me human are displayed on a homepage in so many unfeeling pixels and sums to a numbers problem; who doesn’t like their humanity dissolved down to nothing more than a solution to a math problem that humans cannot even fathom solving with scratch paper and a pen!?
Despite my clear reticence to accept our future robot overlords, I do embrace some of these comforts that technological advance and free-market consumption have offered us. I just wonder if this move to changing and shaping what gets to us is starting to do that world “out there” a disservice. I like my TiVo, Netflix, and even my Hulu. To a large extent I know those kinds of filtration are for my convenience and my pleasure. I am glad Netflix knows I don’t want to see Tyler Perry present ANYTHING, and I get that this system is really meant for entertainment only, but these things also represent a portal to learning new things and that kind of power should not be taken lightly. Think of what a mind-bender someone might get from the right documentary or the right film that doesn’t fit their designed preferences. Genius can be struck through any forum, and just because a person’s tastes say they might not like Citizen Kane, doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be exposed to it on their Netflix homepage and given the chance to watch the greatest film ever made.
When it comes to building my own filters I like having a choice to only watch the sports highlights that I wanna see and follow teams or players very carefully as a fan on ESPN.com. I sure as shit don’t give a holy hell about rugby or cricket unless it is 4am and ESPN3 has a replay of what apparently was a really big game and then try and figure out the rules as I watch it, but I like to be given the option to see it when I want and then otherwise forget it is a thing at all.
It is the way of the times that we even personalize our news pages and sites. This is where fear starts to creep in for me. This is where people now have control not to pick and choose sports, but the things happening in reality all over the world. Depending on a person’s views, morals, beliefs, business interests, location geographically, they can design a filter through a homepage and email updates catering to their specific needs and desires. This is where a slippery slope comes in as we begin to live in a more global society where issues in any one place can and do effect us all. Didn’t know that the Supreme Court ruled violent and sexual video games are protected as free speech same as books like Catcher in the Rye and Howl and are legally allowed to be sold to minors? Well, change up your page and you might learn a thing or two about the reaches of the Constitution.
In the end I guess it is all about pleasing the customer. This might be as much the problem as the solution though. We should filter the world a bit, I will admit. You have to box things up because there are 3,000 kinds of cereal, 500 kinds of soda, and 1,000 different energy drinks, and if you try to look at everything your brain will fucking explode (paraphrasing Budo); but if it is that or being obtuse and ignorant to particular, meaningful things because you can’t be bothered, then I think we might be headed to personalizing ourselves in to a corner. Maybe filtration should be used to only a limited extent. I don’t think anyone has ever complained about being offered more. Give people options, but always keep certain things on any page. Major developments, updates to stories, and anything pertaining to a region or a story of any great weight should have a place on a page no matter if a person decides that they care or not; and don’t forget Citizen Kane. I also think it is dangerous and almost criminal on the part of search engines to throw algorithms at what shows up when I desire to go out and learn; whether it’s movie quotes or reports on warcrimes, I want to be able to access the most relevant information, not what you think I am looking for, Google. Exposure is key to changing and opening minds and if someone isn’t exposed to new ideas, music, movies, or news, I fear it could retard our growth as individuals which can have dire consequences at the relatively cheap cost of having to skim through the “crap” on our homepages for an extra five seconds.
*If you’re reading this (all five of you), then I would like you to do a search of “Tunisia” on Google and list the first three sites or listings you get. My first three are two wikipages: Tunisia and Tunisian revolution, I get Google images (which doesn’t count) and the third entry is a NYtimes.com entry. I will bet that your three links, minus photos, will be different, unless you read a lot of wiki and love the NYTimes as I do. POST THOSE LINKS IN THE COMMENTS BELOW. I doubt you will do this, but if even a couple people do then I think we are in for an interesting experiment to see if I’m lying about algorithm intervention or if there is a little credence to what I have to say. God knows I love to be proven right.