Do you remember a time when you suddenly viewed the world differently? When something changed forever, and not necessarily in a good way. I remember a moment like that a long time away when I realized that the people I thought were the political good guys were feeding at the same trough of corporate campaign money as the people I thought were the bad guys. I was working at the Democratic National Committee when I figured that out and I vividly remember walking across Capital HIll that night feeling deflated and defeated. It was the moment I realized the sad reality that the world is at it is not how I want it to be.
The new and important book, The Filter Bubble, by Eli Pariser, the former Executive Director and now board chair of Moveon.org, was just as eye-opening for me. It’s a great book, but the idea of filter bubbles is crushing for those of us who believe that an open web is a vital part of a democratic society. The filter bubble is the personalization of the web for users done by companies like Facebook and Google to sell us more stuff. They use enormous amounts of our own data to bring us searches and news feeds they think we want with ads specifically geared towards those interests. Here’s how Eli describes it in his book:
More and more, your computer monitor is a kind of one-way mirror, reflecting your own interest while algorithmic observers watch what you click.”
I knew that the moniker “free” used to describe these online platforms was never really true. But I assumed that our deal with these devils was that they were using our information to pop up ads on our pages, a trade off I’m willing to make because I can just choose to ignore the ads. What I didn’t know, what floored me, was that they are only bringing us information in our searches and news feeds they think we want. It is not an open, unfiltered search for “environmental justice” it is a search based on my past searches and interests. Again, in Eli’s words, this means, “You can get stuck in a static, ever-narrowing version of yourself-an endless you-loop.”
This is depressing news for advocates and their causes, which need to broaden their networks to new networks to be successful. Much of the network building that happens online is not even intentional, it’s the online serendipity that is similar to what happens when you meet someone online at the supermarket or sit next to them on an airplane. But the filter bubble reduces the opportunities for online serendpipity, we just keep bumping into the people, organizations, ideas that we already know.
Again, from Eli: “…our best moments are often our most unpredictable ones. An entirely predictable life isn’t worth living. But algorithmic induction can lead to a kind of information determinism, in which our past clickstreams entirely decide our future.” 135
Worse, yet, it runs counter to the notion, propigated by techtopians like me, that the internet could and should be a democratizing tool leveling access to information for people who don’t have access to good schools, good jobs, good libraries, etc. Filter bubble is a more polite way of saying we are all in our own ghetto’s online now.
The key for the public in trying to break out of the bubbles is changing the default settings and the user agreements. Of course, those agreements that are 37 pages long filled with legalese that are hard to view and understand for lay people are not in our favor. Eli says that Facebook’s agreement even has a clause in it saying you agree to these current rules – and any future one’s we create! The current default settings for the platforms is that we’re in the bubble unless we opt out – and it ought to be the opposite.
This will be a long struggle. I actually hope some company will take it as an opportunity to differentiate themselves by doing a better job of protecting our data and keeping the web open – but they probably won’t make as much money as the other guys. Maybe Mozilla could take up this cause? I hope so because I can’t afford to keep drowning my sorrows in chocolate!