3. Social media helps rewrite the rules of internet search.
A quiet revolution occurred this year, as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and other internet gatekeepers have revised their search algorithms in an effort to bring users more personalized information. This subtle shift has enormous implications for students, researchers, and society at large.
Every time we click on an internet link, we’re contributing to our online profile. In effect, we’re telling Google, “This is a source I like and trust.” Now, the ranking systems of all the major search engines take these hundreds of little endorsements we make every day and use them to deliver information that the companies behind these tools assume we’ll value: The links from our most “trusted” sources—such as our friends, or the websites we visit every day—appear at the top of our search results.
The reasoning behind this game-changing move is to help us sift through the overwhelming amount of information at our fingertips. The major search companies recognize that we need a filtering system to save us from information overload, and the system they’ve created now relies more heavily on our history of preferences than on an objective calculation of relevance to bring certain resources to the front of the pack.
This is how sites like Amazon.com and Netflix have been sorting our potential shopping or movie-rental choices for years. But looking for a good novel you hope to enjoy isn’t the same as looking for objective information about a topic. This stealthy rewriting of the rules for internet search could have a profound effect on how we make sense of, and make our mark on, the world.
For one thing, it has the potential to narrow our worldview instead of broadening it, says Eli Pariser, an online organizer and author of the book The Filter Bubble.
During a May 2011 Technology, Education, Design (TED) talk, Pariser called this phenomenon the “invisible algorithmic editing of the web.” He warned that it results in a situation where “the internet shows us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see,” adding: “Instead of a balanced education diet, [we] end up with information junk food.” To counter this effect, web users should broaden their online networks to include a wide range of opinions and perspectives.
The new web-search rules affect not just how we perceive the world, but also how we shape it. If students, researchers, and educators want their writings, videos, websites, and other online works to appear near the top of an internet search, they’ll have to understand how these new rules work in order to take advantage of them, says educator and consultant Angela Maiers.
The major search engines now rank web pages not just by how relevant they might be to individual users, but also by the “Klout” score of their publisher, Maiers told attendees of the 2011 Building Learning Communities conference in July.
Klout is a measure of your social media influence across the web. It takes into account the number of internet connections you’ve made, the frequency of your online contributions, and the size of your social media following. The more consistently you participate in online social media—such as by blogging, or tweeting, or leaving comments on websites—the higher your Klout score will be.
As the new rules of internet search make clear, if students and faculty want their ideas to be seen online, they must build a strong social media presence, Maiers said. She recommended that educators teach social media skills to their students and give them a chance to create, collaborate, and contribute online. “In turn, students will build Klout,” she said—which will help them exert “a personal influence on the world.”
In a Twitter chat with eSchool News readers in October, Maiers argued that the inclusion of social media data in web-search algorithms could create a “new digital divide—those with a powerful network and those without.” She also proposed a “new rule” that sums up the importance of managing one’s online profile carefully: “You are what you share.”
It’s no longer just what content you contribute that is important, she added, but “who you are—your character, your intention, your motivation that becomes important. … If you contribute content to the web, but don’t act socially responsible—if you’re not nice in the sandbox—your content won’t spread.”