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Follow the Filter Bubble

Filter bubbles, meet Upworthy


/ March 26th, 2012 /

Here’s the challenge: as more and more people discover news and content through Facebook-like personalized feeds, the stuff that really matters falls out of the picture. In the Darwinian environment of the hyper-relevant news feed, content about issues like homelessness or climate change can’t compete with goofy viral videos, celebrity news, and kittens. The public sphere falls out of view. And that matters, because while we can lose sight of our common problems, they don’t lose sight of us.

That problem was one of the main reasons I wrote The Filter Bubble. And today, I’m launching Upworthy, a new website I’ve co-founded with Peter Koechley (formerly of The Onion), to try to do something about it. Every day, we’ll be searching the Internet for the best online content that’s highly shareable and clickable and actually important. Hopefully, we can help bring attention and focus to stuff that really matters in a viral format that can reach millions.

Although the site launches today, we’ve been experimenting with how to super-charge content about stuff that matters for a while. And the cool thing about this stuff is that when you do it right, you can reach far beyond like-minded groups. For example, this inspiring video about gay marriage that we helped draw attention to at MoveOn got seen by over a million people who are against gay marriage. So there’s real bubble-popping potential here.

Check it out, and tell me what you think on Twitter at @elipariser. It’s really exciting, after spending a while researching and thinking about this problem, to take a stab at doing something about it.


Your Facebook Edgerank exposed


/ August 18th, 2011 /

To you, that is.

Jeremy Keeshin over at thekeesh.com got curious about Facebook’s Edgerank, the algorithm used to determine which friends you interact with – and so appear most often on your news feed.

In the process he wrote a nifty little script that lets you see your own personal friend ranking.

As Jeremy writes, the results shouldn’t be too surprising, but may be embarrassing. I’d also add that they are a bit off. For example, there are two people in my top ten who I almost never interact with. I’m assuming Facebook has them high in my Edgerank because they recently posted vacation pictures that I scrolled through – so, yes, I clicked on a lot of their pages recently, but that’s an anomaly. Should Facebook infer that they are good friends?

Try it out yourself and let us know if Facebook’s results are on or off the mark for you.


Yahoo’s man+machine algorithm: the numbers are in


/ August 3rd, 2011 /

So how well does personalization work, anyway?

Over at Yahoo, according to FastCompany, quite well. Since setting up their crack personalization team in 2009, clicks on Yahoo’s “Today” box have increased 270%.

That’s saying personalization makes us four more times likely to click on a link. Whether you believe personalization makes the internet more efficient, more fractured or more mind-numbing, that’s a pretty impressive number.

For those concerned about the self-looping and fragmenting effects of the filter bubble, the good news is that Yahoo’s algorithm is not entirely human-free. Editors are in charge of curating the 50-100 versions of the “Today” module that could pop up on your Yahoo home page; the bots just guide them to which stories work best and, ultimately, which take on “Today” you’ll see.

Humans are also, thankfully, still in charge of deciding when civics trumps the bottom line:

On the day Fast Company visited, President Obama was slated to give an important speech that evening on the draw down of troops in Afghanistan.The algorithm predicted that the story on the speech would do miserably with Yahoo visitors. And indeed, according to the dashboard, it wasn’t getting many takers. But the editors still flipped the override switch, ruling that the story would be shown to all visitors to the home page at least once, irrespective of what the algorithm said. It was, and Yahoo willingly took the hit on clicks. Some stories, the editors say, everyone simply needs to see.


Can Reed Hastings Become A Bubble Popping Hero?


/ July 1st, 2011 /

“How much has it been your experience that Americans follow what happens in the world? It’s something we’ll monitor, but Americans are somewhat self-absorbed.”

-Reed Hastings, October 2010

In the book, Eli writes at length about the troubling combination of Peter Thiel’s extreme libertarian views and seat on Facebook’s board of directors.

Peter Thiel is entitled to his idiosyncratic views, of course, but they’re worth paying attention to because they increasingly shape the world we all live in. There are only four other people on the Facebook board besides Mark Zuckerberg; Thiel is one of them, and Zuckerberg publicly describes him as a mentor. “He helped shape the way I think about the business,” Zuckerberg said in a 2006 Bloomberg News interview.316 As Thiel says, we have some big decisions to make about technology. And as for how those decisions get made? “I have little hope,” he writes, “that voting will make things better.”31

In this context, Thursday’s announcement that Reed Hastings will be joining the Facebook board as its 6th member merits examination.  What does Hastings’ past suggest about his view of Facebook’s obligation to shape the information diets of its users in constructive ways?

At Netflix, personalization has been a core of their business strategy. The famous “Netflix Prize” promised a million dollars to any team who could improve the “Cinematch” algorithm by 10%.  The ability to effectively recommend movies that users will like is a key part of the way Netflix has had such incredible success retaining users.  Hastings has led a company at the forefront of creating the personalization algorithms that are creating our filter bubbles.

But there is reason to believe that Hastings might take seriously the implications of restricted informations and push Facebook to take importact pro-civic actions. There are two important aspects of  Hastings’ civic engagement.

First, the substance of his engagement is much more maintsream than the utopian libertarian fantasies which animate Thiel.  Hastings main passion is education reform and Mashable suggests that this interest — one he shares with Zuckerberg was a key reason for the invitation to join the board.

Hastings and Zuckerberg share a passion for education reform. More importantly, Zuckerberg may simply like Hastings as a person. It wouldn’t surprise us if Zuckerberg just likes having Hastings around to consult.

Hastings served on the California State Board of education starting in 2000 and became its president in 2001 before being rejected by the legislature in 2005 after advocating for English language instruction and testing for non-English-speaking students.  He attended Stanford’s School of education.  This is not a philanthropic hobby for Hastings — this is a passion that drives him.

Which brings us to the second important aspect of Hastings’ political activity.  It’s intensity and consistency.  He has been a consistent powerful force behind a pro-innovation agenda for decades.

His job before starting NetFlix?  President of Silicon Valley’s leading Political Action Committe “TechNet.”

In sum, Hastings’ appointment seems to be step in the right direction by Facebook.  Personalization is here to stay and Hastings’ work at NetFlix is a big reason its here so soon.  The responsible path forward is not a Luddite attack on personalization, but creative and inspired leadership from the companies who control our information diets to do personalization in a mindful way.  Reed Hastings’ background suggests that he is capable and inclined to help lead that effort.

More importantly, Zuckerberg’s decision to appoint Hastings suggests that his worldview has become more nuanced and realistic as he has gotten older. As a brash and idealistic Harvard dropout, he was drawn to the utopian and radical Thiel as a mentor.  Now, as a twenty-seven year old  leader of a multi-billion dollar company, he wants Reed Hastings — a pragmatic and technocratic former President of TechNet — in the board room.   This signals a welcome shift for a man with the power to provide information to almost a billion users in a responsible way

(Note: this is my speculative personal opinion, Eli has a different perspective which he will hopefully post soon!)


US Government asked Google for user data 4,601 times.


/ June 29th, 2011 /

What does Google do with all that data they collect on us? Most of it sits in massive data centers — quietly providing users with more “relevant” search results and news. But what happens when governments get involved?

That’s what Google’s latest transparency report provides — a detailed look at who’s asking for data and how much Google gives up. They even have an nicely arranged website for those interested in the stats.

The newest report was released today, detailing the six-month period of  July-December 2010. For curious individuals in the US — Google has received 4,601 user data requests from the US Government over the most recent six-month period and has complied with 94% of those requests (the highest compliance rate).

Other countries making full use of their information request power include: Brazil, France, the UK, and India.

The old adage holds true — “With great power vast quantities of data, comes great responsibility.” Good for Google for providing such a detailed and accessible analysis of this data.


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