Twenty-Three Things: Activity 22: Custom Search Engines

I’ve challenged some of my colleagues to take the 23 Things challenge to become more invested in online learning this summer. This website includes a 10-week game plan for learning some online learning and presenting methods that are useful for teachers, and that are appropriate activities for the age group we teach. There are other 23 Things lists out there, I know, but this is the one that we’ve chosen to work with, and that I’ve decided to complete.

The previous entries in this series are here:

  1. Getting Started
  2. Discovery
  3. Setting Up a Blog
  4. Starting with Flickr
  5. Find some Flickr Toys and Tools
  6. Blog about the role of tech in your classroom
  7. Initial experiment with RSS Readers
  8. RSS Readers continued
  9. Cloud Computing
  10. Web 2.0 Activty
  11. YouTube & Video
  12. Podcasts
  13. eBooks
  14. Wikis (a disaster story)
  15. Wiki Sandbox
  16. Tagging Links: Delicious
  17. Tagging Links: Technorati
  18. Twitter
  19. Twitter in Education
  20. Image Generators
  21. GoodReads, Shelfari, LibraryThing (and other ways to recommend books)

Activity 22: Custom Search Rolls

I’ve discovered that Rollyo.com seems to have vanished as of September 2012, so I won’t even be able to do Activity 22, which is about using a Custom Search Engine.

I can run one through Google.com, though. Maybe I should try this?

BUT.

One of the things that my friend J pointed out to me during my very interesting chat with him today, is that Google creates a bubble for you.  Pick a controversial issue, one that is usually a hot button even for us teachers.  How many of those could there be?  How about… Gun Control?

Chances are that you have strong feelings about gun control.  It doesn’t matter if you’re for it or against it right now — please don’t all write in at once to tell me how you feel about this issue, because I’m trying to make a larger point.

J’s point was that Google runs custom web-searches already.  WHich means that if you’re pro-gun control, and I’m anti-gun control (for the sake of argument here, I’m not telling you my real position), the way that we perform the search for articles, and the things that we select out of Google’s search rankings, are gradually going to skew our results in favor of one particular position or the other.  I’m going to (in this example) tend to read and agree with anti-gun control websites and articles, and thus Google will over time provide me with more of the same; you, with your pro-gun control stance, will tend to click on Google’s links to pro-gun control articles and websites, and you will thus get more of the same over time. Both of us, meanwhile, will get more and more results that are polarized towards one or the other extreme — we will be given less stuff in the middle or moderate positions (some gun control, some gun freedom, more mental health screening), and we will thus wind up shouting our factoids about the issue across the coffee house at one another, or leaping over the soup to strangle one another at some poor hostess’s dinner party.

And we’ll never be invited to a dinner party again.  Assuming we survive the initial encounter.

What I’m saying, in other words, is that custom searches are already driving us toward confirmation bias.  And in retrospect, it doesn’t make sense to allow people to do custom searches, at least from a corporate viewpoint, because the corporations already benefit from delivering automatically customized searches.  I don’t necessarily mean this in a corporatist, capitalist, conspiracy-theory-wacko sort of way.  But if Google lets me run searches only from six or seven websites, then they can’t sell data about me to the fifty-seven thousand websites that want my business and my money.  My contribution to the data analytics their servers are running on my website-selection choices 24/7/366, is not helpful to their “big data” project, and I am not helping them master the web or helping them make their next bajillion dollars.  Even if they did live up to their oft-stated motto, “Don’t be Evil,” Google has no interest in helping me limit their access to my information or my search options.

Likewise, my students, as relatively unformed minds, need to learn how to evaluate and analyze which websites are trustworthy.  If they searched only the websites I gave them, they would necessarily inherit a skewed picture of the world — doubly so, given that they’re working from Google’s interpretation of my selected, approved list of ideas.  THat’s me, limiting what my students can learn, and over there is Google, filtering what my students can see based on the limits I’ve preinstalled on their search terms.

No… Apparently there are good reasons why Rollyo folded and closed its doors.

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