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About 46 years ago on September 2, 1969, two computers communicated with each other for the first time, and thus the Internet was born. Today, the Internet plays an integral role in human lives. Past generations would look at us and wonder how lucky we are to have the Internet provide loads of information at our fingertips. But are we all that lucky? It is true that the Internet can be an outstanding and efficient source to research and gather data, but at the same time it can be the source of why we lose information, leading to ignorance.
This all has to do with what we search for. It is simply the individual’s decision over what information he wants to read, whether it be for entertainment or for education.
In 2014, TechCrunch posted our country’s top ten most popular Google searches for that year. It turned out the top five searches mainly had to deal with people, entertainment, and travel; in order from one to five, it was Robin Williams, World Cup, Ebola, Malaysia Airlines, and Flappy Bird.
It is very surprising that Flappy Bird, a game app, made it into the top five. This information shows that the majority of people in the United States are searching for topics that interest them or entertain them. Based on Eli Pariser’s concept of “filter bubbles”, the Internet begins to see what its user tends to search for and it tailors the users search results with topics that interest him/her.
So if most people are constantly searching for entertainment and their interests, the Internet does not help them move towards more informative topics.
Therefore, distracted reading and shifts of information on the Internet leads to less intellectual thinking and more semi-informed opinions. One main cause of distracted reading on the Internet is the rise of bias and opinionated material. This is because people are more inclined to read a piece that only supports their belief. Social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, etc., are growing rapidly and are giving people the chance to share whatever is on their mind to the world. More often than not, the ideas these people share are subjective. And this is not only seen in social media. Dan Kennedy, a published journalist, wrote about how blogs are pulling away from traditional journalism. He explains, “The rise of blogging as both a supplement and a challenge to traditional journalism has coincided with an explosion of opinion mongering” (Kennedy, 1). Now blogs are another source providing less balanced information to its readers.
This is problematic because it gives readers a one-sided view on a topic, which makes them lack knowledge on an opposing view. I can agree that reading bias material once in a while is not all that bad, but reading it in excess is an issue. Slate magazine’s chief political correspondent and political director of CBS News, John Dickerson, wrote an essay called Don’t Fear Twitter on how Twitter can be beneficial for informative reading. Since Twitter entries have a limit of only 140 characters, Dickerson explains they are a “snapshot” of information and the reader should go further to find an article related to the topic. But Dickerson refutes that “the risk for journalism…is that people spend all day Twittering and reading other people’s Twitter entries and don’t engage with the news in any other way” (Dickerson, 8). This is the “risk” because you cannot gain much info solely off of 140 character entries. As I mentioned earlier, and as supported by Kennedy, social media is largely opinionated as are other sources of journalism, so people only reading Twitter, for example, are not going to gain sufficient knowledge. But is it the user’s fault to be reading this material?
According to Steve Grove, Director of Community Partnerships at Google, it somewhat is. In Grove’s essay, YouTube: The Flattening of Politics, he studies the effects video has, particularly YouTube video, on providing information to viewers. In all, he describes the benefits YouTube has in spreading politics and news to all ages, but he makes a valid claim on how it is up to the individual on what information he perceives to be true. Grove states, “When it comes to determining the trustworthiness of news content on YouTube,” as with any website or source, “it is important to have some context. A viewer knows if the video they’re watching is coming from ‘jellybean109′ or ‘thenewyorktimes!” (Grove, 12). This is absolutely a factor that should be taken into account. Obviously listening to “thenewyorktimes” would be more reliable than that of “jellybean109.”
Individual responsibility over what information is read is important. There may be lots of bias material on the web discussed by Kennedy or bad habits of not reading deeper into a topic discussed by Dickerson, but ultimately it can be argued that those distractions can be completely evaded by the individual. However, it can also be argued that the user is influenced to engage in distracted reading because the Internet leads its users toward their interests. This is commonly becoming known as the work of “filter bubbles”, a clever name invented by Eli Pariser. Pariser is the chief executive of Upworthy, a website for “meaningful” viral content. He gave a speech on TED about his newly known concept. He describes that “there is something that’s sweeping the Web. There are a whole host of companies that are doing this kind of personalization. Yahoo News, the biggest news site on the Internet, is now personalized — different people get different things” (Pariser, 3:21).
Pariser is saying that the Internet is essentially tailoring individuals search results based off of the topics the individual searched before. If a user consistently searches for entertainment or only things he believes in, then the Internet will continue to draw him to those topics, thus making him not gain a sufficient amount of valuable information. This is the fear of filter bubbles as they encourage distracting readers to read junk info. Jonathan Stray, a well-known journalist, perfectly explains the resulting problem with filter bubbles. In his article Are we stuck in filter bubbles? Here are five potential paths out, he writes, “But if these individually-tailored filters are successful in giving us only what we want — as measured by what we click on or “like” — then maybe they’ll remove all the points of view we disagree with, all of the hard truths we’d prefer to ignore, and everything else in the world that might broaden our horizons” (Stray, 1). This is a rather extreme view describing the effects filter bubbles have, but it is certainly a possibility. In other words, it lowers human rationality, meaning that people become less adapt to respect or listen to one another’s ideas. Also, these shifts of information may affect the development of politics.
With more people engaging in shallower reading, they only gain a partial view on the topic. This makes the reader less inclined to change his mind, which lowers the chance for compromise, which is ultimately the foundation of the American government. Overall, the way we receive information is causing the Internet to become a dangerous place. As explained by Kennedy and Dickerson, distracted reading is a growing issue due to the rise of opinionated material and short, easy to read social media. Grove, however, points out that the individual is held responsible for what information he chooses to intake. But that is not very easy as Pariser and Stray explain how the Internet attracts the individual to topics he likes, which in most cases are not informative topics. As a result, people engage in less intellectual reading on the web and receive information that does not call for critical thinking. This ultimately leads to a lack of knowledge and poor objectivity, which damages the potential for the growth and development of new ideas.
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