Slate: Your opponents fear that search personalization might harm serendipity, or chance encounters with new information, on the Web.
Weisberg: I don’t think that’s happened. The Web is all about serendipity—people passing along things that are interesting or notable. If you look at Twitter, it’s both the best tool for news personalization so far and the best tool for the discovery of serendipity. Serendipity is part of this problem of news personalization; A good news source gives you things you aren’t expecting as well as things you are. And the fear of a “Daily Me” that only tells you what you already know—that nightmare vision of someone who only cares about the Chicago Bulls, online gambling, and beer—you have to ask yourself, who would really want that? If you were any respectable consumer of news, you’d remain interested in things beyond your particular hobbies, tastes, and passions. That’s part of the reason the news hasn’t been personalized. It’s so hard to figure out how to give people both what they’ve indicated a preference for and what they as consumers of news need and want. I don’t think there’s any risk of the curator function, the editorial function, going away.
Slate: No, but what if it’s outsourced to a Google algorithm?
Weisberg: You have to differentiate between personalization that’s useful and valuable, and the kind of personalization that theoretically would be negative. So if you’re searching pizza, it’s clearly valuable for the search engine to know where you are and give you pizzerias that are in proximity to where you live and not in another state. But personalization that figures out you’re a libertarian Republican—and heavily weights your news in favor of Reason magazine and the Wall Street Journal editorial page—I think most people would view that as a negative.
Of course, there’s a lot of territory between the two. Personally, I would like to have much more personalized news. I don’t think getting news that I find more relevant would in any respect narrow my political perspective. I think it would do a better job of informing me about the issues that matter to a democratic society.
Slate: What’s the best personalization tool we have right now?
Weisberg: From my perspective, it’s Twitter. By following people on Twitter, you implicitly personalize the news: You figure out what your friends and colleagues, people you respect in different fields, are interested in, and you get a stream that’s more relevant to you. But while you can customize what areas you’re interested in, you’re not going to tune things out.
Slate: Is there something troubling about getting your information from corporate or profit-driven entities—about doing your learning, as Siva Vaidhyanathan says, in a shopping mall, not a public square?
Weisberg: You mean a corporate entity as opposed to ABC Disney or NBC Comcast or Viacom PBS? Because Google and Twitter are technology companies, are they somehow more malevolent than traditional media conglomerates? I don’t think so. In fact, in terms of the value they place on freedom of expression and freedom of information, I think Google and Twitter in particular do very well. Now, their business is very disruptive to the economic model of journalism, but that’s a separate question.
Slate: The other debate camp thinks the tech companies have a special incentive to present you with content you want to click on, so that you see their ads.
Weisberg: Doesn’t the Washington Post have an incentive to give you articles that you want to read? They [Google and Twitter] are getting more direct feedback from their users, so they’ll have better answers to certain questions. How interested were people in this? What was the response to this? Do people want more of this?
Perhaps there was a sort of “ignorance is bliss” aspect to traditional journalism. I often wonder how many people read the coverage of the Albany state government in the New York Times. Not knowing the answer to that question may be what allows the Times to invest as much as it does in such coverage! In a Google world where nobody clicked on those stories, they would go down in priority. But I don’t at all buy this idea that the world of old media was this democratic paragon now being disrupted by technology. We had a narrow, centrist view of the world that came through the major news organizations. It’s the Internet that has allowed hundreds of flowers to bloom.