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!)


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    "Eli Pariser isn't just the smartest person I know thinking about the relationship of digital technology to participation in the democratic process—he is also the most experienced. The Filter Bubble reveals how the world we encounter is shaped by programs whose very purpose is to narrow what we see and increase the predictability of our responses. Anyone who cares about the future of human agency in a digital landscape should read this book—especially if it is not showing up in your recommended reads on Amazon."

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