Ever since the divisiveness of the 2016 US presidential election, tech and social media companies have been under fire for showing users content that reinforces their existing opinions. Google’s latest update to its mobile search app may make such “filter bubbles” even harder to eradicate.
Last week, the company announced a new set of features that leverages its search and machine-learning technology to make the app’s feed easier to personalize. The feed, which launched last December and resembles Facebook’s News Feed, shows users a steady stream of personalized content, such as sports highlights, news, or music releases. In its first iteration, the feed could be customized via a settings menu and served up content based on Google searches. Now, users can follow and unfollow topics as they browse, and Google’s updated algorithm incorporates the user’s location, browsing behavior, and global trends.
Google billed its updates as faster and easier ways for users to “keep up” with the things they care about, develop “a more holistic understanding” of those topics, and be exposed to “diverse perspectives,” according to the press release.
But the updates undoubtedly also reflect the company’s more aggressive embrace of hyper-personalization. Unlike Facebook’s feed, Google’s curates material from everywhere not just from friends and family.
Google skirted the question of whether users would see only information that confirmed their existing prejudices. “We don’t assess opinions as Google,” said Karen Corby, the senior product manager for the feed. News stories are picked with “the same algorithms that we are using on search and Google news in order to show the top stories for an individual news story,” she said. “We’re not guaranteeing a different set of viewpoints,” Susan Cadrecha, a company spokesperson, added. “We are guaranteeing multiple sources” of news. Google believes that by showing multiple sources, users will be more likely to gain exposure to opinions that challenge their own.
The updated feed was released to US users last Wednesday and will be rolling out to other countries in the next couple weeks. Google also has plans to replace mobile web search with the feed in the future, although Cadrecha said the company intends to leave desktop web search as is.
Google’s latest move to increase personalization likely won’t be its last. As Quartz’s Mike Murphy has previously reported, technology companies are increasingly “facilitating an existence in which we never have to talk to, or interact with, anyone that we don’t want to, both in person and online.” This becomes a problem when our filter bubbles erode our ability to engage in healthy civic discourse.
But all isn’t doom and gloom. Google’s algorithms don’t have a mind of their own—yet. Until then, they simply serve up content that reflects your choices. The ability to escape your filter bubble remains in your hands.