It’s the Filter Bubble, Stupid!


Just the other day, I stumbled across a pretty interesting video with a simple idea. The speaker, Eli Pariser, argues that as the web becomes filled with more and more content, websites such as Facebook and Google continue to algorithmically filter our news feeds and search results.

When two people of different demographics, different geographical locations and different search histories search for the same topic online, their results are beginning to look completely different thanks to this type of automatic personalization. Moreover, what you see in your Facebook news feed is based upon your previous interactions on the social network, your interests, your likes and so on. There is no more one-size-fits-all approach for the web. This is largely due to the fact that we have so much information available and according to some folks, we’d never have time to sift through it all on our own.

The giants of social networking and search, such as Facebook and Google, realize that personalization is something that can be accomplished technologically and they are reinventing the way we see the world with these algorithms. But is it fair? Is this where we want to go? As Eli Pariser puts it,

We really need . . . to make sure, that these algorithms have encoded in them a sense of the public life; a sense of civic responsibility. We need you to make sure that they’re transparent enough that we can see what the rules are that determine what gets through our filters. And we need you to give us some control so that we can decide what gets through and what doesn’t.

So then, to some people, these filter bubbles surround us with an artificial sense of reality, while locking everything else out. Tech giants say just the opposite, that without these filters, data would become meaningless. In the end, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. While I see the usefulness of filtering and personalization on the web, it can easily be taken to an extreme.

After all, I thought the web was supposed to be about freedom of information without the gatekeepers and censors of traditional means of communications of the past. Fifty years ago, the gatekeepers were newspaper editors and classroom teachers. Along came the Internet in the 1990s which promised free information and communication for the masses. Congrats, we’ve successfully turned the filtering process over to machines. That doesn’t sound like progress to me.

Oh, and in case you want to watch the original presentation by Eli Pariser, here it is:

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