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Follow the Filter Bubble

Filter bubbles for democracy


/ June 15th, 2011 /

Speaking on a panel at last week’s PDF Conference, Eli asked: what happens when political campaigns are so successful at micro-targeting their messages that we each experience our own personalized election season?

We like to think that, in a democracy, political campaigns are a time for citizens to engage in a national conversation on the issues.  If those issues are sliced and spun to appeal to ever smaller slivers of voters, it’s hard to imagine what, if anything, a national discussion would be based on. Without a starting point for discussion, there’s no dialogue. And without dialogue, democracy has got to suffer.

But are targeted political messages only bad for democracy? Maybe not. A recent study looking at radio communications in Serbia and Croatia suggests information silos could have a sunny side.

Serbs and Croats, who have a history of animosity, share a common spoken language so can understand each other’s radio broadcasts – although not all villages along the Serb-Croat border have radio access from the other side. Researchers wondered what the effect of being able to tune into Serbian radio would have on Croat villagers. Would listening to broadcasts from a historical enemy make Croats more anti-Serbian?

Factoring out distance from the Serbian border the study found that, indeed, when Croat villagers were able to catch Serbian airwaves, they were more likely to vote for nationalist (ie anti-Serbian) parties and to have anti-Serbian graffiti covering their village walls. The increase in votes for nationalist parties was small – just around 2% – but statistically significant (as in, not a statistical fluke).

The researchers conjecture that in hearing Serb broadcasts Croats were reminded of past Serbian belligerence and became more attuned to a possible resurgence of Serb-Croat violence. Their natural reaction? Vote fear.

Looking at the US, one wonders if hearing political messages from the enemy party has similar effects. Of course, we can’t draw an exact parallel between Democrats and the GOP and Serbs and Croats. Our parties haven’t been gunning each other down recently and we don’t have physical barriers separating broadcasts from either party. But it’s not far off to say the parties are in a perpetual cold war and that targeted media has built virtual walls between liberal and conservative messaging.

Could those virtual walls make us less antagonistic toward our ideological opposites, just as being ignorant of Serbian messaging made Croats less fearful of their historical enemies?

To use a sample size of one: I, like most Americans, read magazines and newspapers that align with my ideology (in my case, center left). On the rare occasions I pick up publications like the National Review or glance at the New York Post’s national news section, I find myself trembling with rage (extreme lefty sources also tick me off, but to a lesser degree). If I were subjected daily to far right theorists and their liberal-jabs, I could easily see myself getting crazed, losing sleep over the prospect of a right-wing take-over and increasing my donations to the ACLU and MoveOn. I might even, like some of my liberal friends, find it impossible to date Republican men. Luckily for me, however, far right messages rarely pierce my bubble; my center-left cocoon leaves me mildly concerned for the future of our nation, but thankfully un-panicked.

Of course, extremists are familiar with the crazing effect of the extreme statements of their counterparts. It is the bread and butter of the Keith Olbermanns of media and Sarah Palins of politics. But it might be that Glenn Beck mediated through the commentary of Keith Olbermann is less hair-raising for a liberal than watching Beck straight up. In other words, we’re protected from enemy-messaging even when it comes to us through our own preferred media.

We certainly need more opportunities to engage in discussion with Americans who do not share our views, not only because dialogue fosters mutual respect, but also because we may all actually learn from each other. But maybe messaging from politicians, particularly on the extremes, is not conducive to true dialogue; perhaps it does more to get our dander up and block dialogue instead. If that is so, then here is one case where the filter bubble is good for democracy.


The future of personalization is here


/ June 7th, 2011 /

Writing The Filter Bubble in 2010, Eli didn’t lack current examples of how personalization algorithms shape the content we see on our browsers – from Netflix and Amazon suggestions to Google search returns and ads that trail us around the internet.

But many of the creepiest applications of the filter bubble were left to the imagination. What if, someday, search engine results changed depending upon your friends’ preferences? What if you visited your favorite online magazine and the front page was “personalized” to show you the stories it thought you wanted to see?

Well, it didn’t take long for “someday” to arrive.

Last month Bing started giving users the option to plug into to their Facebook accounts to “receive personalized search results based on the opinions of your friends,” thus “bringing the collective IQ of the Web together with the opinions of the people you trust most, to bring the “Friend Effect” to search.” Such a move was expected when Bing and Facebook joined forces last year, but it’s still something to see it in action. To Bing’s credit, the “Facebooking” of search is opt-in (at least for now), so searchers can decide for themselves how much they want their Filter Bubble to collapse in on them.

It remains to be seen whether Washington Post and Slate readers will be given a similar option. Trove, a project of the Washington Post, creates a personalized news experience based on your Facebook profile. It’s still a separate site and in its early stages, but from an interview with Chief Digital Officer, Vijay Ravindran, it looks like the Washington Post will be integrating parts of Trove into its own site and subsidiary Slate in the not-too-distant future. It shouldn’t be long before my Washingtonpost.com is something quite different from your Washingtonpost.com.


Love in the filter bubble?


/ June 1st, 2011 /

Personalization algorithms already tell us what movies to watch, news stories to read and tunes to listen to. It was only a matter of time, then, that they’d tell us who to love.

Matching algorithms aren’t new to online dating services. EHarmony, Chemistry and OKCupid have long served up compatible mates based on dozens, if not hundreds, of questions singles answer on their sites.

But a new dating app, StreetSpark, is venturing out internet-wide to pick up clues on who you’re likely to become enamored with. Love seekers on the site can plug into their Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter accounts to discover potential lovers with similar tweets, profiles and cafe haunts. (That, at least, is the concept. So far this single has yet to be sent a match.)

It’s like “traditional” online personalization but in reverse. Instead of telling you what you’ll like based upon your friends’ preferences, it tells you who you’ll want to be friends with based on what you like.

StreetSpark touts their service as giving “serendipity a helping hand.” Normally we have to wait for luck to bring us face to face with that special someone; StreetSpark provides us with a helpful homing device right in our smartphone.

It’s an odd usage of “serendipity,” though, which describes the phenomenon of making desirable discoveries by accident. If you instruct your iPhone to tell you when there’s a sympatico mate in your hood, bumping into them can’t really be described as “an accident.” Of course, the makers of StreetSpark are aware of that contradiction and are tongue and cheek in using the term.

But it’s more than a semantic quibble. Part of appreciating the beauty of “making discoveries by accident” is to understand that sometimes we don’t know what we’re looking for. If you’re a romantic, that can especially be true in the case of love. It’s not as if we have the profile of “the perfect guy” in our head and falling in love is just a matter of luck when you’ll run into that profile. The “accident” of love is when we meet someone who doesn’t fit our pre-conceived ideal and yet, mysteriously, we fall head over heals. In the process, if we’re truly lucky, we’re opened up to a new, exciting and unknown world.


Select your 150 friends wisely


/ May 30th, 2011 /

Online technol0gy is transformative. It can make the world flat, spark revolutions and even wrap us into personalized filter bubbles. But there’s one thing technology hasn’t been able to do yet: expand our circle of friends.

You’re probably familiar with Dunbar’s “150 rule:” the reason that humans tend to limit the size of their communities to 150 people – whether in prehistoric towns, in military units or in cults – is because the human brain maxes out at 15o friends.

Now it turns out that even Twitter can’t free us of this 150 ceiling. Bruno Concalves and colleagues at Indiana U recently looked at 1.7 million tweeters over 6 months to see how many connections they kept up (connections, as opposed to mere followers, had actual back-and-forth exchanges). True to Dunbar’s prediction, twits generally don’t maintain more than 100-200 friends.

That’s bad news for the filter bubble. You can imagine one hope of avoiding a personalized information bubble is to widen your circle of friends in order to include folks with different viewpoints. That way you might expand the information that arrives on your laptop screen. But, as Eli points out in the intro to his book, merely adding friends to your FaceBook list doesn’t mean you’ll interact with them. No interaction means those “friends” will be virtually invisible on your feed. You’re still stuck in a community of 150.

The only way to truly escape the bubble may be to replace some of your current connections with people who disagree with you – and actually engage them in discussion. Of course, if we’re concerned about the limitations of human behavior, that may be the most pollyanish hope of all.


Like: the enemy of love?


/ May 30th, 2011 /

I’m not sure Jonathan Franzen had filter bubbles in mind, but in yesterday’s NYT’s op-ed the author points out yet another casualty of being surrounded by things you like: love.

Excerpt from the article:

A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb “to like” from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving. The striking thing about all consumer products — and none more so than electronic devices and applications — is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)


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