Your personal filter bubble, or What Facebook and Google are hiding from you
You would have had to be hiding under the proverbial rock in order to avoid hearing about the concept of the “filter bubble” in the past year. It comes from peace activist and MoveOn.org cofounder Eli Pariser’s 2011 book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. The basic idea is that the rise of “personalization” in Internet searches — the tendency of Google and Facebook and Netflix and other prominent online services to use complex algorithms to gradually tailor search results to the perceived preferences of each user — ends up blocking out the true fullness and richness of the world of information and ideas. “Search engines weight our search results to our own preferences. (My search results won’t look like yours.) Sites will filter our news (without asking us) to bring us what they think we want,” a reviewer for The Christian Science Monitor summarizes. “The consequences of this social engineering, Pariser argues, is that we interact more with people who think like we do. Rather than fulfilling the early Internet dreams of diversity and freedom of choice, we are living in an echo chamber.”
A writer for Forbes amplifies:
What these companies want to do is maximize advertising revenue while making it easier for all of us to access the content we want. Only now they have taken it upon themselves to decide what we want to see, and that’s not a good thing…Put together all the algorithms (which deliver information to your Internet doorstep based on what you click on most often) from all the prominent online information sources and you end up with your own unique online universe of information. The information that populates your universe depends on your filter bubble, which, in turn, depends on who you are and what you do online. The problem is that we don’t get to decide what gets through our filter. Yahoo, Google, and Facebook are now doing that for us. More important, we don’t see what gets edited out, so we don’t even know what we’re missing. This moves us all to a world where the Internet shows us what it thinks we want to see, and not necessarily what we need to see.
— Holly Green, “Breaking Out of Your Internet Filter Bubble,” Forbes via Yahoo! News, August 29, 2011
I vividly recall reading predictions of this exact eventuality quite a few years ago, perhaps as early as circa the year 2000, and maybe even earlier. And I haven’t exactly needed Pariser’s stating of it — although he does state it well, for which I’m grateful — to verify its reality for myself. Although there are those who disagree with some or all of his thesis (not the manifestly true observation that Google and Facebook and others custom-filter content for their users, but that this produces the psychological and social effects Pariser warns about), I noticed with some consternation during my last couple of years with Google that things seemed to be getting decidedly stuffy in there. Why did I keep finding the exact same web sources and types of web sources? And why, whenever I browsed anonymously on computers that I had never used before, did everything come up different? In other words, I can testify personally to the stultifying feeling of the filter bubble effect.
So how should we greet this news? What should we do to escape our individual filter bubbles? Aside from consciously bearing in mind that your personal filter bubble really does exist and really does give you an online experience that progressively takes on the intellectual, artistic, and moral character of bleached and refined white flour, one obvious answer is to avoid using Internet tools that explicitly filter search results in this particular way. In leaving behind Google, I’ve switched to DuckDuckGo as my default search engine, and I’m loving it — including the fact that it overtly avoids creating a filter bubble for its users. In fact, it has an entire page titled “Escape your search engine Filter Bubble!” that explains how filtering works and why DuckDuckGo doesn’t do it. (DuckDuckGo also doesn’t collect a history of your browsing activity. I’m hoping it represents the future of the Internet.)
Above is Pariser’s 2011 TED talk, in which he very nicely explains his overall thesis and its import in ten minutes. Although the talk was officially titled “Beware online ‘filter bubbles” by the TED folks, some astute YouTuber has here retitled it in a way that conveys its true import.