Follow the Filter Bubble

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!)

Why Rick Santorum’s “Google Problem” Actually Isn’t Such A Problem

/ June 12th, 2011 /

As you can see above, Rick Santorum has a bit of a ‘Google problem.’   The arch conservative’s predicament is the result of an ingenious strategy by Dan Savage to make the top result on Google when users search for “Rick Santorum.”   Eight years after the first post suggesting the campaign, googling “Rick Santorum” still yields drippy results.

Much has been made of the “Google Problem.”  (See coverage here, here, here, herehere, and here).  Roll Call’s article is typical of most coverage of Santorum’s conundrum;

“Rick Santorum has a Google problem.

The former Pennsylvania Senator might be well-known on Capitol Hill, but his name more regularly produces blank stares in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, if recent polling is any guide. The likely Republican presidential candidate knows he needs to expand his name identification.

Santorum can only hope voters don’t turn to Google, the world’s most popular Internet search engine, to learn more about him.”

There is an embedded assumption here about how people use Google to get political information.   The coverage assumes that curious citizens are blank slates about issues or politicians whom they are currently ignorant of.   As they go about their daily lives, they hear chatter about some new campaign or current event; such as Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign.  Curious to learn more they turn to the intertubes to use “the Google ” and type in a term about the topic which has sparked their curiosity; such as “Rick Santorum.”  Then, they click on several of the links returned by the search.   Based on the information which the links provide, the newly informed curious citizen rationally forms an opinion; such as “I think Rick Santorum should be president of the United States.”

If this assumption were true, Rick Santorum’s campaign would be in big trouble unless anal sex becomes a favorite pastime for Iowa Republicans between now and the caucuses.  Fortunately for Santorum, the curious citizen described above is mostly mythical.  Very few people actually use search engines in this way.

Santorum, dismisses the “Google Problem.”   He says; “I don’t see it as a problem at all”   Though Santorum has recently found himself at odds with scientific consensus — last week he called decades of peer reviewed climate science “junk science” — his position on the “Google problem” is corroborated by academic research.   In his excellent book “The Myth of Digital Democracy,” Matthew Hindman definitively debunks the myth of the curious googling citizen.  He reports that;

Most news searches in these data are not focused on current events or subjects of interest.  A substantial majority of searches, rather, contain the names of specific news outlets or specific Web pages…In short, most searches involve citizens seeking news organizations they are already familiar with.

Scholars have seldom provided clear and specific expectations about what citizens will choose to search for in the realm of politics and political news.  Yet one common assumption is that citizens will begin with an interest in a political topic, and then type queries about that subject into search engines.  Although much news traffic does come directly from search engines, news-related queries show a different pattern: citizens searching not for topics but for known sources.

In short, Hindman’s research show that it is much more likely that a Republican Iowa caucus voter would learn about Rick Santorum by searching “Fox News” and getting directed to coverage of Rick Santorum on rather than googling “Rick Santorum.”

The personalization of Google searches is certainly a big deal that affects our information diets.  But it’s not as big a deal for politics as many assume it is.

And, for our old friend Rick Santorum, it’s still quite unlikely that he’ll be the next President of the United States.   But, with all due respect to Dan Savage, Santorum’s “Google problem” is just a small obstacle among the many that should keep him from reaching the Oval Office.

Twitter Search Results Now Personalized

/ June 1st, 2011 /

Twitter — a last outpost of the unpersonalized internet — has taken the plunge.

Twitter search results, previously sorted solely based on time, will now be personalized.

Today we’re starting to roll out a completely new version of Twitter search. Not only will it deliver more relevant Tweets when you search for something or click on a trending topic, but it will also show you related photos and videos, right there on the results page. It’s never been easier to get a sense of what’s happening right now, wherever your curiosity takes you.

There is a bit of irony to the way twitter is marketing this announcement.  Their blog boasts that the new search features can take you “#anywhere.”   They’re pitching the change as enabling discovery in spite of the tendency of personalization to do the opposite.

In the end, the devil is in the details.  How are results being personalized?  Is way in which results are being personalized clear to users?  And most importantly, how much control do users have over personalization?

Danny Sullivan has a quick rundown of Twitter’s approach here.

How does Twitter decide what’s most relevant, what should show up as a Top/Hot Tweet?

“Relevance for us today is using a combination of signals, your follower graph, who you follow, who’s following you. Another aspect is just looking at the content itself and the resonance of the content,” Mike Abbott, Twitter’s vice president of engineering who oversees search, told me.

So Top/Hot Tweets are personalized for each individual? Yep. But those worried that this means you’ll only see things from those you know or like, relax. The personalization isn’t that dramatic, Abbott says.

Indeed, Abbott showed me a screenshot of his own results for a search on a topic about a Twitter feature that showed some tweets that weren’t in favor of it. It’s not just reinforcing what you like.

If you don’t want personalized results, you can log out of Twitter and search that way. Then you’ll get “normal” results, the company says.

At the end of the day, this seems to be a relatively responsible approach to personalization that improves user experiences while also preserving users ability to get unpersonalized results.  Unlike Google, which personalizes results whether you are logged in or not, Twitter has preserved the option to log out and get “objective” or “normal” results.

Melvil Dewey and The Legacy of Google’s “Knowledge Group”

/ May 3rd, 2011 /

Tech Crunch is reporting today that the “Search Group” at Google is no more.  From now on, it will be a part of a team called the “Knowledge Group.”

Engineering lead Udi Manber describes the mission of the new group:

“The challenge posed to us by Larry, Sergey and Eric was to find a way to help people share their knowledge. This is our main goal.”

In his TED talk and book, Eli suggests that we’ve replaced the human editors of the past with the algorithmic ones of the present.  In many areas — particularly news where  personalized facebook and twitter feeds have taken the place of shared mainstream media sources — this is true.

Google’s step today to create a “Knowledge Group,” however, makes me reconsider whether the algorithmic editing of information is really so new at all.  Since the beginning of the written word, people have been devising systems to classify information and “put it in order” so that individuals can find the particular knowledge that is relevant to them at a certain time.   Google’s engineers can be understood as the new generation of the unsung heroes of information ordering — librarians. (more…)

Amplifier or Counterweight?

/ May 1st, 2011 /

We don’t just live in online filter bubbles.  Increasingly, Americans are surrounded by people who have the same tastes, lifestyles, and political opinions as they do.

Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing call this “The Big Sort.”  In 1976, just 26.8% of Americans lived in a “Landslide County” where one presidential candidate won the county by more than 20%.   By 2004, however, 48.3% of Americans lived in Landslide Counties.


(landslide counties are shaded in)




This is the context for the filter bubble.  The algorithmic personalization of our information diets is occurring at a time when Americans are much less likely to interact with people who have different opinions from them than they were in the past.

Right now, personalization algorithms amplify this trend.  But with some creativity, courage,  and intentionality, it is possible that one day soon they could be a healthy counterweight.






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    "The Filter Bubble shows how unintended consequences of well-meaning online designs can impose profound and sudden changes on politics. All agree that the Internet is a potent tool for change, but whether changes are for the better or worse is up to the people who create and use it. If you feel that the Web is your wide open window on the world, you need to read this book to understand what you aren't seeing."

    Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget

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