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Get out of your internet filter bubble

In today’s business world, leaders need to get ideas, opinions, and perspectives from various sources. In particular, there are times when we need to tune in to people and sources of information that contradict our prevailing world view.

Unfortunately, many of the online sources we turn to for information are surreptitiously moving us in the opposite direction.

According to political activist and former CEO of moveon.org Eli Pariser, Internet giants like Google, Yahoo! and Facebook have started using algorithms to determine what we see and hear online. He discovered this when he realized that Facebook had removed all links to conservative people from his Facebook page, without his permission or knowledge.

Is there an evil conspiracy going on?

Probably not. What these companies want to do is maximize ad revenue while making it easier for all of us to access the content we want. Only now they have been in charge of deciding what we want to see, and that is not good.

As Pariser explains, when Google uses complicated algorithms to determine online search results, it creates a “filter bubble” that filters out everything the search engine thinks we don’t want to see. Or at least it buries it so deep in search results that we don’t bother to click on it.

Bring together all the algorithms (which deliver information to your internet door based on what you click most often) from all the prominent online information sources, and you end up with your own unique online information universe. The information that populates your universe depends on your filter bubble, which, in turn, depends on who you are and what you do online.

The problem is that we cannot decide what goes through our filter. Yahoo, Google, and Facebook are now doing that for us. More importantly, we don’t see what’s being edited, so we don’t even know what we’re missing. This moves us all to a world where the Internet shows us what think we want to see, and not necessarily what we need to see.

The solution, Pariser suggests, is not to remove the filters. After all, we need some tools to sort everything on the Internet. The answer is that Google, Yahoo, and others give us a good degree of control over filters, so that us determine what is filtered and what is excluded.

Why do we need many diverse sources of information?

From a practical point of view, it could prevent us from going out of business. These days, the new product or service that is revolutionizing our industry often comes from left field. We need to continually scan the world beyond the walls of our business for these types of threats.

At a deeper level, it has to do with the way our brain works.

The human brain is an amazing organ, especially the newer areas with its high-level reasoning skills. However, we are still stuck with the “old” brain that helped us survive when we had to quickly recognize and respond to predators and other threats.

The old brain is an excellent pattern recognizer. Consequently, you tend to seek information that supports what we already know to be true about the world. By doing so, you actively reject information that contradicts our world view. We then get caught in a double whammy of seeing things the same way while actively avoiding new information that doesn’t align with what we already believe to be true.

This is how we can be totally caught off guard when our best customer turns to a competitor. And that’s how we never see the outsider who breaks into our market and steals market share from us with a new product or service that we don’t even imagine.

These old brain tendencies wouldn’t pose such a problem if the world didn’t move so fast. But it does, and we have to move just as quickly to keep up with it. Consider the following:

Facebook, the main social networking service, is not yet 8 years old. As of July 2011, it had more than 750 million active users.

YouTube, founded in 2005, now uploads 24 hours of video Every minute of every day. His company blog states that the site receives more than three billion visits per day.

Twitter, the baby of the group, began as an R&D experiment in 2006. According to a recent count, it has 200 million users and 1.6 billion search queries a day. I suspect that the number of users has grown significantly since the last count.

Ten years ago, who could have imagined that we could post promotional videos of ourselves, at no cost (other than producing the video) for the whole world to see? And five years ago, no one in their right mind would have dreamed that we would be communicating our products and services through short, concise “tweets” with a maximum of 140 characters. At the time, we were still trying to figure out how to build effective websites!

This is how fast our world changes. And that’s why we can’t afford to let anyone else decide for us what we see, hear, and read in the Internet world: we put our businesses at risk.

As business leaders, we must create the habit of exposing ourselves to divergent points of view. We need to establish systems and processes that expose our employees to new and different ways of thinking. And especially we must ensure that we do not allow others to dictate or control our sources of information. Doing so limits our ability to make informed decisions and puts us at risk of letting others control our destinies rather than our own.

Google, Yahoo, Facebook, are you listening?

PS: to listen to Pariso’s 9-minute talk on this topic, click http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html

Ted.com is one of my favorite sources for reflective, informed, and divergent points of view!

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