Hi, my name is Steven and I’ve been working for Google for about 20 years now.
I should clarify, I have not been employed by Google, nor has any such arrangement ever been implied.
What I mean to say is that for the past 19 years, every time I’ve searched anything on their service or used one of their devices, it has probably put money in their pockets. By living my life in constant contact with its products, I’ve been giving the company my location, my preferences for food, what shows I like, what music I listen to, what I believe in, where I work, where I play, health information, and I’m sure plenty of other things that I’d prefer not be stored on a server and sold to advertisers.
Much of my digital life – and likely much of yours – has been spent providing input like searches, clicks, views, mapped routes, and Pokémon Go sessions (Google has invested significantly into its internal-startup-turned-spinoff company Niantic) that Google will very likely use to make money.
You might not care that this is the case.
“So what?” you’re saying to yourself. “They give me cool free maps, they help me find what I need, and I never have to pay a cent. Who cares if they show me ads once in a while?”
You’ve got a point. Google provides a valuable suite of services, which all started by organizing information and making it easy to find quickly; however, I contend that the caveats that come with these services could be avoided if the same services were provided in less intrusive ways.
The Downsides of the Biggest Tech Platforms
I’m reminded of a story in the Bible where Jesus gets angry and starts flipping tables in the temple. The temple was a public space, a holy space – not a place for business. He became irate that a place where everyone was supposed to connect and share an experience had been defiled by others seeking to profit from the fact that they had gathered there.
I believe that in this same spirit, we should be defending our rights to connect and gather without being constantly barraged by messages urging us to consume. I believe there are too many downsides to the platforms that connect us as they’re currently operating, and I’m doing my best to ditch them in favor of alternative methods of connecting and finding information.
One big caveat that comes with using today’s leading tech platforms – one which lives at the center of national political debates and has doubtlessly contributed to many a tense Thanksgiving dinner – is the idea that social feeds or personalized results from technology platforms like Facebook or Google can create a filter bubble. Because these companies are constantly learning about you, they provide different results based on the extensive amount of information they have, arguably in an attempt to predict your actions and persuade you to act (read: buy). This is a problem even Bill Gates is concerned about.
“[Technology such as social media] lets you go off with like-minded people, so you’re not mixing and sharing and understanding other points of view,” said Gates in Quartz (2017). “It’s super important. It’s turned out to be more of a problem than I, or many others, would have expected.”
If you’ve ever had an argument with someone over something and just couldn’t find a middle ground, or weren’t able to even see how this person thinks the way they do, you’re experiencing the type of real-world friction that a filter bubble can create. When we only hear similar ideas and opinions – until we go further and further into interactions with only the content that aligns with ideas we already hold or are leaning toward – we can quickly latch onto some extreme ideas without realizing it.
I only recently discovered that a filter bubble was a thing, and that it could be facilitated by something as seemingly innocent as social media or a search engine. This discovery led me to investigate.
I’m happy to say, it seems there are options for those of us who don’t want to give up our personal data for services that can – as the following products demonstrate – be provided by other means.
- Search Engine
- A surprisingly effective and user-friendly search engine, DuckDuckGo provides a similar service to Google’s search function and doesn’t track you. They serve significantly less ads than Google from what I’ve seen, and the ones they do show are based on only the words in the search bar. They promise they don’t keep your search records or track you around the web (like Google does).
- Web Browser
- The web browser Firefox from the not-for-profit Mozilla, which I’ve been a fan of for years, is a fantastic option. The browser echoes the organization’s focus on privacy and internet health. It allows you to choose DuckDuckGo as your default search engine and offers a tool that supposedly keeps Facebook from tracking you around the web through features like share buttons and other technical wizardry.
- Social Media
- There are even alternative social media platforms popping up that put the users in control and don’t serve ads. One I recently tried is Mastodon, although I don’t fully understand it yet and your friends probably aren’t on it. However, it’s promising because it’s fully functional, and I could buy some server space and host my own social network using their software. Then people could sign up on my server, where we’d have a community we control. No ads, no forced connections to “people you may know,” and the ability to govern the content we want in our community by ourselves.
To me, these companies are trying to show us that with the right sources of funding and with trusted people running them, services such as search engines and social media could be maintained in the public interest rather than for corporate interests.
Claiming Our Mental Space and Access to Knowledge
Using new technologies run by and for the users, maybe one day we’ll be able to browse the internet in relative privacy and without having our mental space so cluttered by ads. I’m not saying advertisements are inherently bad, but they are a pain when they fill half the page and get in the way of what we’re trying to find.
I work in marketing, so I understand that businesses have to find customers somewhere. I just think a quality over quantity approach would be better in most cases, and people should have more options when it comes to ways of getting around ads.
In other media, at least we can ignore the ads. We can focus on the road and miss billboards, walk out of the room during a TV commercial, or flip past an ad in a magazine. This creates a highly competitive environment where businesses have to compete for our attention. (Oh snap, did I just use an economic policy buzzword?)
With digital ads, it’s so often the case that we’re held captive with a splash screen or some other form of ad delivery that we are forced to interact with before we can get to what we want. This interaction doesn’t require advertisers to compete on anything but the price they’re willing to pay to get in front of us. Also, this decision uses our mental energy, however small an amount, which is frustrating and sneakily tiring.
The problem is that these little intrusions add up over time, and they shape the business practices of companies or creators relying on ad revenue. We’re seeing content farms pop up left and right that produce what are essentially empty vehicles for ad delivery. YouTube content creators stretch their videos out into 20-minute slogs just so they can add advertisements in the middle. Writers chop up their articles and sacrifice integrity to shoehorn a product placement into their work.
Heck, Snapchat is a platform basically created to serve ads. By making picture sharing ephemeral, the app keeps users coming back over and over to maintain those sweet, sweet snap streaks. What problem was this app solving? Answer that and you’ve proven me wrong. (Hat tip for this test of a product’s intent/business model: Cal Newport on digital minimalism)
Where is the quality content? How much does it cost to gain access to real, useful knowledge instead of another search-engine-optimized content marketing pitch for a product? Why should we have to give up so much information about ourselves to find out what we need to know?
I personally prefer to ante up a little cash to have ad-free experiences. I just hate that ad-supported seems to be the default model for everything, and it’s especially concerning when it’s tied to how information is organized and accessed. The default mode nowadays is to opt in to everything, click “I agree” without reading the prohibitively lengthy terms and conditions, and then give up nearly every piece of information that our lives create so it can be sold back to us as advertisements and products.
In this situation, who has control of what we are able to learn? Who owns the information that our lives create, and these companies obsessively collect? Who should have control of all of this information, if anyone? Why, in this day and age, should general knowledge that we’ve helped create as a public continue to live behind a paywall or require us to slog through ads to obtain it?
As for me, I would prefer if our access to knowledge weren’t mediated primarily by companies who seem to be motivated strictly by profit.
If we can explore and promote new ways of organizing and finding information in the interest of the public rather than a select few, maybe we’ll all be better off.
Maybe one day we’ll see real search results that weren’t bought. Maybe we’ll get to choose to see only the social posts from the people we’ve intentionally connected with and want to hear from. Maybe one day we’ll have better control over our experiences online.
And maybe, just maybe, we’ll make the internet great again.
Inspiration and Further Reading
If you’re interested, here are some things that inspired this post:
- The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff explores the business imperatives behind tech giants like Google and Facebook (AKA why and how their core products are free but they’re two of the most successful companies in the world) and the potential threats they pose to the fabric of our society.
- Cal Newport’s blog is very cool; I want to read his book Digital Minimalism.
- Edward Snowden; just pretty much anything he’s said or done is interesting to me.
- Wired magazine undeniably has an effect on what I’m paying attention to and they inspire me with their coverage of the tech industry.
- Shout out to the public library, where I checked out and am reading Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci. It’s about networked protest and the challenges that come with organizing movements via social media.