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Follow the Filter Bubble

Vampires, wizards and American identity


/ May 4th, 2011 /

If you agree that having a common national identity is critical to a well-functioning democracy, filter bubbles may give you cause for concern.

Not that there’s anything wrong with sub-national identities. Since long before the days of Dixies and Yanks, America has been a vibrant mix of regional and sub-cultural identities. That’s a feature, not a bug.

But even as we self-sort and brand ourselves as Hipsters, Hip-Hop-sters, Christians, Vegans, Locovores, Nascars, etc. – Americans have shared a common narrative that’s lets us all, more or less, identify as “Americans” and work together when times get tough.

As filter bubbles draw us deeper into our sub-cultural silos and place a narrative wall around groups of Americans, however, that shared national identity could start to erode (if it hasn’t already).

The good and bad news is our sense of identity may be pretty malleable.

In a study published last month, researchers were able to induce a new identity in test subjects in under an hour. The fresh identity participants took on? Vampires and wizards.

All it took was a little narrative. 140 undergrads sat down to read 30 minutes of either Twilight or Harry Potter and then take a couple of personality tests. Students who read Twilight were more likely to associate themselves with words like “blood, fangs, bitten, undead” and to say they had sharp teeth. The effect was even stronger for test subjects who were more group-oriented.

The bad news is that if we can identify with mythical creatures so easily, then it’s no surprise we readily take on the identities of humans in our narrow social networks.

The good news is that, as long as our filter bubbles let even drops of a common national narrative seep through (as it did this week with the OBL story), it might be enough for us to feel we’re still all “Americans.”


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…)


MLK and the brief life of a misinformation cascade


/ May 3rd, 2011 /

Another day, another Filter Bubble phenomenon from the Facebook feed.

Unless to you are a social media luddite, you experienced it too: After “Ding dong the Laden is dead” choruses swept the nation yesterday morning, a quiet backlash of peace and love had blanketed the Walls of Facebook and Twitter by early evening. Everybody and their Buddhist aunt had posted:

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr

An apt quote from MLK to express the sentiment that, perhaps, our cheers were unseemly.

A little too apt. As Megan McArdle at the Atlantic pointed out by 6:23pm, King had never uttered or penned those words. It seems the well meaning pacifist posters were unwitting participants in a misinformation cascade.

But just as quickly the misquote had conquered the internet, almost as quickly did McArdle’s post beat it into a hasty retreat. (more…)


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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."

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