How the Internet Keeps Us Locked in a Comfort Zone

How much would you bet these kids are all looking at stuff they like, not things that make them feel challenged? (photo: guardian.co.uk)
How much would you bet these kids are all looking at stuff they like, not things that make them feel challenged? (photo: guardian.co.uk)

I wrote a post a few months ago about how Facebook consumes chunks of time throughout the day that could be used in a more constructive way by focusing on activities that make me a more interesting individual, instead of living vicariously through snippets of superfluous detail about other people’s lives. That’s one example of how the Internet is making us boring.

Another kind of boredom that I hadn’t considered until reading an article in Maclean’s is that we’re offered a narrow, personally tailored perspective of the world when we’re online, thanks to what American author and activist Eli Pariser calls “the filter bubble.” This is the rather creepy way in which the Internet recognizes our activity, detects what we’re clicking on and reading, and provides us with more advertisements and links to similarly themed sites.

I’ve noticed for years now that there are always a few, usually inconspicuous, ads in my Gmail sidebar that are directly related to whatever the subject of an email is. When I start typing a question in a search engine, Google Instant tries to guess what I’m looking for and complete my sentence as I write. Facebook uses algorithms to align newsfeeds with users’ interests, activity, and politics. Pariser, who is very liberal, began to lose sight of his conservative friends because he didn’t click on their pages often enough to be considered relevant.

Basically, we’re being offered an edited version of the world that prevents us from having to confront or sift through information that is different than what we instinctively gravitate toward. It’s natural to like hearing opinions that are the same as our own, but that’s not necessarily always a good thing because we’re not challenged to see the world in a different way. As the article’s author Emma Teitel writes, “We no longer have to purge our lives of things we don’t like or don’t agree with. The web does it for us.”

Teitel mentions the American online dating site, ConservativesOnly.com, which is coming to Canada this month. Its purpose is self-explanatory – singles can “purge” their “personal dating pool of liberals, progressives, socialists, Marxists, communists, feminazis, and democrats.” This got me thinking about the argument I often have with my husband about online dating. We have lots of friends for whom it’s worked very well, but if I imagine Jason having had an online dating profile back when we first met, I never would have wanted to meet him. His interests are so different than mine that I would have written him off after reading, “Croatian-Canadian electrical engineer who loves kickboxing and heavy metal.” Um, no thanks, not my cup of tea; or so I thought until I met him. Likewise, he wouldn’t have been into a “Violin-playing redhead who likes to read books all day and study history.” Thankfully, we didn’t meet online, so our romance had a chance to blossom. As a result, we’ve found tremendous satisfaction and experienced personal growth through each other’s different interests.

A personalized worldview is a very boring one. It’s hard to find the motivation to seek out something that doesn’t interest us because, well, it doesn’t interest us! We no longer have to flip past news stories about things we don’t want to read because we can go directly to sites that show us only what we want to see. As Teitel writes, “Things become non-existent when you don’t have to acknowledge them.” While we may have the world at our fingertips with our smartphones in hand, Pariser points out that “it’s awfully hard to see the world when you’re looking in a mirror.” So, I hereby resolve to be more determined than ever to push myself out of my comfort zone in experiences, relationships, and reading.

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2 thoughts on “How the Internet Keeps Us Locked in a Comfort Zone

  1. So true! My husband is not my type – exactly why it works! And well, ten years later I guess he now is.
    My mum met her husband through a dating agency mix-up (pre-internet dating days). She’s a reader, fine-diner, city girl – he’s a country, shooting, farm boy. Instant attraction on their first blind date, but both returned home to apologies from the dating agency for their mistake!

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