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Eli Pariser has written a book and done a TED talk on the subject of filter bubbles, which he describes as a tendency of websites like Facebook and Google to skew the information presented to individual users in favor of their previous behaviors, insulating them from ideas that run contrary to their established thinking.  As a contrarian, I’m quite sympathetic to Pariser’s criticism of filter bubbles–I want people to see more contrary viewpoints–but, also as a contrarian, I disagree with Pariser on the party responsible for filter bubbles: he blames algorithms, whereas I would blame people.

Pariser first became aware of filter bubbles when he realized he was no longer seeing his conservative friends’ posts and links in his Facebook feed.  He determined that this happened because he wasn’t engaging with conservative posts and links (by commenting on the posts or clicking on the links), leading Facebook’s algorithms to remove them on the basis that he wasn’t interested in them.  The problem, as Pariser sees it, is that Facebook’s algorithm removed content that he wanted to see.  The problem, as I see it, is that Pariser wasn’t actually engaging with the content he claims he wanted to see.  Facebook removed his conservative friends’ posts because it deemed, correctly, that he was ignoring them.

The internet represents a specific instance of the problem of filter bubbles, but it’s only a small slice of the pie.  In free societies, individuals define their media consumption.  We choose which books, periodicals and web-sites to read, which television shows and films we watch, who our friends are, where we live, what our hobbies are.  These freedoms present us with opportunities either to create filter bubbles by surrounding ourselves with like-minded individuals and agreeable ideas, or to actively seek out differing views, in order to challenge ourselves.  The first option is easier on us.  The second, I believe, is more rewarding, but also requires a certain amount of effort.

Here are some of the options that are available to Pariser upon realizing that his media consumption was tilted further to the left than he would like:

  • Criticize Facebook and Google
  • Search for a conservative blog or magazine to read
  • Follow conservative thinkers on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+
  • Write a note on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ explaining that you’re interested in understanding for conservative viewpoints and asking your friends for suggestions
  • Find the conservative friends that have been hidden from your Facebook news feed and start engaging with them

The first will get you a TED talk (and sell books).  The other four are technology-driven means of achieving the end that Pariser is aiming for–more balanced media consumption.

The internet can be a facilitator of the challenging task of seeking out differing viewpoints and confronting them.  It can also facilitate encapsulating ourselves in thought bubbles.  Ultimately, the control lies in our own decisions of which media to consume, not in the algorithms designed to help us.

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3 Comments

  1. It does illustrate that people who are lazy about how they use social media don’t get any diversity in their social capital. Not unique to technology… back in the 70s, film critic Pauline Kael was accused of living in a liberal bubble: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pauline_Kael#Alleged_Nixon_quote Everything’s coming up Nixon!

  2. But all the later options just help Pariser, whereas the first option alerts people to a trap they may be falling into. Frankly, I didn’t think much about these bubbles *with regards to the internet* until people started talking about them a few years ago. And I’m grateful that they did.

    That said, it seems like the obvious best course would be for Pariser to experiment with your later options, find the best ones, and *then* blog publicly about the dangers of bubbles while providing the best options as suggestions.

  3. Pariser is doing a service by providing information to the public, and his plea for transparency is reasonable. I just don’t think Facebook and Google, or any other media outlet, can “solve” this problem. Removing the technological filter that keeps conservative items out of Pariser’s Facebook feed does no good if Pariser continues to personally filter out conservative items by ignoring them.


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