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New tool aims to pop Google's 'filter bubble'

No one is an island—unless they're searching on Google.

The search giant's vast array of algorithms personalize our search results based on our browsing history, location and even the kind of device we're using. While the service can help us find what we're looking for faster, Dr. Nick Feamster sees a downside.

"You're getting results that are tailored to an algorithm's view of who you are," the Georgia Tech professor says. "A lot of it is based on things you've done in the past, and so you're going to continue to get results that match those."

Feamster is describing a problem known as the "filter bubble," a term coined by Eli Pariser in a 2011 book of the same name. When a person's access to information is constrained by their previous behaviour, there's a risk they'll become isolated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints.

"How then do you get new experiences?" Feamster asked. "Ones that cross boundaries or stretch the limit of your imagination?"

One way is to use Bobble, a plugin for Google's Chrome web browser that lets users see the difference between their Google search results and others'. The tool — created by Feamster and his colleagues — maps Google results based on locations and shows popular search results that appear in others' searches, but not yours.

"Bobble helps you break out of that personalization bubble," Feamster said. "It gives you an alternate viewpoint."

Feamster calls the app a "cautionary exercise" for an era when algorithms are increasingly shaping our access to information.

"Our tool is Google-specific, but pretty much any site where you're searching for something — whether it's Amazon, Netflix or Facebook — has personalization," he said.

Feamster hopes the app can spark a conversation about how to strike a balance "between getting relevant search results and totally cutting off our worldview."

For more information, or to download Bobble, click here.

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