Weathering the Storms of Filters and Walled Gardens
Editor • ONLINE
It has been a mild winter thus far in my part of the world. We’ve had lots of rain but very little snow. When it rains (or snows), the precipitation falls equally on my house, my lawn, and my neighbors’ houses and lawns. However, if we go inside to get dry and decide to search the web, we’ll very likely receive unequal answers.
The university professors living to my right, the marketing manager to my left, and the retired couple across the street have different search histories, different interests, different computers, and different operating systems; therefore, they have different search results. In their attempts to make search results more relevant to individual searchers, web search engines use algorithms to determine what we really want to know, regardless of how we phrase our query. Their desire to be prescient causes what Eli Pariser calls a “filter bubble” in his book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), which both William Badke and Greg Notess cite in their columns.
Web search engines employ many filters to deliver the bubble of information that they think will please information consumers. The latest is Google’s “Search Plus Your World,” introduced early in January 2012. It raises the personalization ante by searching content from your social network (as determined by Google, but not including Facebook or Twitter) along with the open web. Search results include both private and public information—more opportunities for filter bubbles to form.
Information professionals struggle to get out of those bubbles. Our mission is to find all sides of an issue, to research every aspect whether or not we like the answers we find. What our social network thinks may not be relevant to our research projects. That’s where walled gardens come in.
The typical notion of a walled garden, in the information rather than the horticultural world, involves closed technologies, virtual spaces not accessible to outsiders. However, I’m thinking of walled gardens as the premium services libraries and information professionals enjoy as subscription items, such as Factiva, Dialog, EBSCO, LexisNexis, and ProQuest. They are unlocked only when you know the requisite user ID and password. Walled gardens are distinguished from the free web by the absence of filter bubbles. If all my neighbors had access to subscription information services and each of us entered the same search terms, we’d get identical results.
Information walled gardens can be expensive to cultivate—hence the need for subscriptions. If your research activities require obtaining credit ratings, you’ll want to know about the agency databases described by Janet Hartmann in this issue. If it’s industry information, I’ve reviewed some major premium content databases on that subject in my column. Professional research requires professional tools. It’s up to information professionals to provide search filters that match the information needs of clients but do not algorithmically create unnecessary filter bubbles.