Month: May 2011

Activists caught in the Filter Bubble

How personalization helps activists find each other while losing society

Also published at Alternet.

Eli Pariser’s new book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You is a must-read for pretty much anyone who uses the Internet. Eli breaks down troubling trends emerging in the World Wide Web that threaten not only individual privacy but also the very idea of civic space.

Of key concern to Eli is “web personalization”: code that maps the algorithms of your individual web use and helps you more easily find the things that the code “thinks” will pique your interest. There’s a daunting amount of information out there, and sometimes it can feel overwhelming to even begin sorting through it. Personalization can help. For instance, I can find music that fits my tastes by using Pandora, or movies I like through Netflix. The services provided by companies like Pandora, Netflix, Amazon, et al are designed to study us&#151to get to know us rather intimately&#151to the point where Netflix can now predict the average customer’s rating of a given movie within half a star. Eli paints a picture of your computer monitor as “a kind of one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests while algorithmic observers watch what you click.”

Whatever the benefits, the intent of these services isn’t just to benevolently help us find the things we’re looking for. They’re also designed to help companies find unwitting customers. When you open your web browser to shop for a product&#151or really for any other reason&#151you yourself are a product whose personal information is literally being sold. Companies that you know, like Google and Facebook, and companies you’ve probably never heard of (e.g. Acxiom) are using increasingly sophisticated programs to map your personality.

And it’s not just creepiness and individual privacy that’s at issue here. Personalization is also adding to a civic crisis. It’s one thing for code to help us find music, movies and other consumer products we like. But what about when code also feeds us our preferred news and political opinions, shielding us from alternative viewpoints? Personalization now means that you and your Republican uncle will see dramatically different results when you run the same exact Google news search. You’re both likely to see results that come from news sources that you prefer &#151 sources that tend to reinforce your existing opinions. Maybe your search will pull articles from NPR and Huffington Post, while his will spotlight stories from FOX News. Both of you will have your biases and worldviews fed back to you &#151 typically without even being aware that your news feed has been personalized.

Web personalization is invisibly creating individual-tailored information universes. Each of us is increasingly surrounded by information that affirms&#151rather than challenges&#151our existing opinions, biases, worldviews, and identities.  

This filter bubble impacts everyone. And it poses big challenges for grassroots activists and organizers in particular.

Climate scientists reaching beyond the choir (& dropping the F-bomb) VIDEO

A while back Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, offered some sound advice to climate scientists about “good climate communication”. Basically, if you’re a climate scientist who wants society to take your data seriously, you have to be something of a political scientist too. Mooney spotlights the Evangelical Climate Initiative as an example of good climate communication that can reach a broader constituency. It’s something that’s “not what you’d expect”. The name itself breaks a popular stereotype about who cares about climate &#151 and a stereotype about evangelicals: that they’re inherently anti-science.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNq02JXmzo4&w=560&h=349%5D

Climate scientists have understandably been too busy being scientists &#151 but Mooney suggests that they need to engage people with more than cold rational data. They’re hurting their cause by not treating it like a cause &#151 sometimes even like a “war room”. Mooney wants climate scientists to get “in the game”.

Last week some creative climate scientists heeded that call. Okay, this video is probably designed to reach a slightly different audience than the Evangelical Climate Initiative’s base. But there are plenty of audiences to activate in this struggle. Enjoy…

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFTddFk6zb8&w=560&h=349%5D

“Preaching to the choir” on Google N-gram viewer

I learned about Google’s N-gram viewer from reading Eli Pariser’s new book The Filter Bubble (in stores and online as of TODAY &#151 Order it!). The tool queries a “database spanning the entire contents of over five hundred years’ worth of books &#151 5.2 million books in total… [Pariser]” So you can see how often different phrases have been used in print, over many years.

I decided to try it out with the phrase “preaching to the choir”. Turns out its popular usage is pretty new:



Here’s the search in N-gram viewer.

The phrase “preaching to the choir” hardly appears at all before 1968, but climbed quickly and steadily since then (leveling off just a few years ago).

Think that means anything? All sorts of phrases come and go all the time, but that this coincides so perfectly with dramatic cultural trends of self-selection and self-segregation in U.S. society is interesting. Seems like it would make sense for the phrase to gain in popularity as more and more people perceived that they were becoming increasingly separated from folks whose worldviews and lifestyles differed from their own.

(For a deeper discussion of this trend of self-selection/self-segregation in highly industrialized societies over the past 40 years, read anything by Ronald Inglehart, or check out Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, or read my review of it. And definitely check out Eli Pariser’s brand new book The Filter Bubble.)

HIRING: half-time campaign media person to work on important whistle-blower issue

We’re looking for a smart, strategic, team-minded person to work with us as a half-time (approximately 20 hours per week) contractor on media and messaging for an important campaign. This is a temporary position, starting as soon as possible, with a likely end date in December. Location is flexible (within the United States).

Prior grassroots media and campaign experience required.

Please send a brief cover letter and concise resume (1-3 pages) with references to info[at]beyondthechoir[dot]org. Please write RESUME in the subject line.

We’re moving fast with this; the first wave of applicants will be considered next Monday, May 16th. Please send applications by Sunday, May 15th, 10pm ET.

A little more about what this position will entail on the flip…

The Tactic Star (a tool for planning and evaluating tactics)

The “tactic star” is a tool we developed a few years ago. We wanted to repost it here on the new site. Click here to download it as a worksheet (PDF).

Choosing or inventing a successful tactic often involves some intuition and guesswork &#151 and always risk. But the more we study our contexts, the better we become at judging when to pull which punches. Projecting and measuring success is complex, but we should not let the murkiness of these waters deter us from diving into them. Patterns do emerge. We can learn a great deal from our experiences when we critically analyze them. This tactic star names some key factors that change agents should consider when determining their tactics. The same tool can be used to evaluate actions after they have been carried out.