Tag: 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—to get to know us rather intimately—to 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—or really for any other reason—you 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 — 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 — 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—rather than challenges—our existing opinions, biases, worldviews, and identities.
This filter bubble impacts everyone. And it poses big challenges for grassroots activists and organizers in particular.
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 — Order it!). The tool queries a “database spanning the entire contents of over five hundred years’ worth of books — 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.)