Big Brother Is Searching?

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Start typing in the search box at google.com, and Google’s Suggest feature magically begins completing your thoughts: “tiger” begets “Tiger Woods,” “tea” draws “Tea Party movement,” and “craig” summons “craigslist.”

It seems helpful enough, says Dominique Brossard, a UW life sciences communication professor. But adding that subtle nudge to more than 1 billion search requests every day may steer the direction of public discussion.

The more people choose Google’s suggestions, the more they click on one of the high-rated results for that search. Those highly clicked sites then inform future Google Suggest terms. In a study published in Materials Today, Brossard and her colleagues showed that a self-reinforcing loop narrowed Google searches and results to nanotechnology and health topics, rather than, for example, nanotech’s social implications.

“In all likelihood this is not unique to nanotechnology,” Brossard says. “We could see similar self-reinforcing spirals in all sorts of areas of public discourse.”

Published in the Fall 2010 issue

Tags: Faculty, Humanities, Research, Social sciences

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