When it comes to reading online, don't forget your vegetables

In this day and age, everyone has had experiences with predictive technology. Google helps you fill in the blanks when you search. Netflix, TiVo and others suggest TV shows to you. Heck, Facebook even tries to tell you who your friends are.

One place that predictive technology is really being heavily utilized is with mobile apps that provide reading material. These apps analyze what you like to read, and suggest new material based on past choices. Sounds pretty convenient — but is this really a good thing?

Dan Misener, host of CBC Radio’s Spark questions how good apps like these are. He argues that apps like Zite, produced in Vancouver, narrow our horizons sometimes, and provide us with reading material that is low in value, since we read so much of it already.

Here’s an excerpt from his article:

When I tried the Zite app, I really did have the sense that it was learning about me.

And while I recognize that these recommendation services can be useful, part of me can't help but worry. Specifically, I'm concerned that online personalization will perpetuate my bad or lazy habits.

For instance, I spend a lot of time reading gadget blogs. Arguably, too much time. Over the past two weeks, there's no question that I've read more reviews of the iPad 2 than necessary.

I know others with similar vices: Hollywood gossip blogs or obsessive sports coverage. My question is: Do I really need a tool that will help me find yet another iPad 2 review? Or would I be better off reading something new and unfamiliar?

Put me down in the “obsessive sports coverage” category. I need to stop reading so many fan blogs.

Misener raises some excellent points in this article. In particular, he frames the predictive qualities of these apps in the context of “comfort versus challenge.” While these apps provide us with lots of great stuff to read that we’re already familiar with, they often don’t give us much breadth.

It’s sort of the way political news websites work. Read Fox News’ website, and you’ll be sure to find plenty of right-wing commentary from both writers and readers leaving comments. Read the Huffington Post (or, alternatively, the Colbuffington Repost, Stephen Colbert’s number one news aggregator aggregator), and you’ll find plenty of left-wing commentary. The obsessive readers of these websites don’t read these websites to find new and exciting content that changes the way they think; too often, they’re simply looking for articles that reinforce their own views.

Here’s my proposal: apps like Zite can find articles that are exactly what you normally read, right? So, can’t they find articles that are the kind you never read? If I’m reading left-wing commentary all the time (guilty as charged) it would probably do me well to be exposed to some views that are contrary to my own. If leftist articles are the double-stacked cheeseburgers of my reading, then perhaps I need some conservative steamed broccoli to go with it. Even if I don’t like it, at least I know it’ll be good for me. I think an app that provides content like this would be quite enriching.

That is, until I get bored and start reading sports blogs again.

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Liam Britten

Liam Britten

Liam Britten is a writer and editor with a journalism background operating out of Vancouver. In addition to his work at Techvibes, he has been published in student publications across Canada, as well as local newspapers such as The MapleRidge-Pitt Meadows TIMES and The Langley Advance. An aficionado for the finer things in life — such as video games and sports — Liam is plugged into the tech... more

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