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The Filter Bubble

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Follow the Filter Bubble

Filtering ourselves by eyewear


/ May 25th, 2011 /

Personalization algorithms, especially those that factor in our friends’ preferences, have a way of clumping us into ever more homogeneous and like-minded groups. That’s one of the central ideas of The Filter Bubble.

But, as Eli freely admits, online personalization is not the only force filtering out diversity and sieving in homogeneity. We humans are very good at sorting ourselves into groups that look and think much like ourselves – without the help of algorithms.

The power of homophily, the sociological term for our self-sorting tendencies, hardly needs scholarly backing ; just glancing around any college cafeteria should be enough to convince that we flock to birds of similar feathers. But that doesn’t stop academics from supplying hundreds of studies for evidence. In two such recent papers, researchers show the breadth and depth of our self-sorting behavior.

On the high-commitment end, we marry within our political party. That may not seem surprising, but when you compare it to a weaker tendency to marry people with similar personality traits, it suggests that for the most important decisions in life we value people who think like we do more than those who act like us.

At the other – superficial – extreme, we sit near people who look like us. Based on self reports and experiments, researched subjects tend to find seats next to people of the same gender, race, hair length, hair color and general attractiveness. And, yes, eyeglass wearers prefer sitting next to each other too.


Genetically modified crowds


/ May 17th, 2011 /

To anyone familiar with human stampedes, financial panics or professional soccer games, the “Wisdom of Crowds” may seem more like an oxymoron than a legitimate pursuit of study.

But as James Surowiecki so adeptly describes in his book of that name, crowds can be wise.

Under certain conditions. First, they must be diverse; homogeneous groups will be limited – or aggravated – by their shared narrow perspective. Next, groups must be set up so that individuals can think independently, thus avoiding the twin traps of groupthink and mis-information cascades. Finally, they have to have a way to aggregate their ideas, inputs and decisions.

Open source communities and (some) markets are good examples that meet all three conditions. Filter bubbles, which encourage homogeneity and cascades while eschewing communal aggregation, are not.

But if filter bubbles may make online communities stupid, could we make algorithms that make us collectively smarter?

We’re probably a long way off, but the Center for Collective Intelligence at MIT is at least moving in the direction. Led by Thomas Malone, the center is looking more deeply at the “DNA” of smart groups; how the “what, who, why and how” of a group correlates to group intelligence.

In a study published last year, Malone and his colleagues discovered that average intelligence, for one, does not  predict group intelligence. Other factors, such as group cohesion, satisfaction and motivation, are only moderately correlated. What does make a group smarter? Having a few people who are “socially sensitive;” that is, members who tend to be more open and receptive.

Malone and his crew are taking results like that and mapping them onto a “genome” of group intelligence. Workplaces and organizations are taking note, but so are news sites and online government initiatives interested in harnessing the intelligence of readers and constituents. Have an under-producing team or a comment thread full of flamers? Time for some group dynamic gene-splicing.

It might be too far a reach to translate MIT’s work to the the group dynamics of the internet as a whole – at least in the near future. But perhaps one day we’ll be building algorithms to maximize collective intelligence rather than just personal relevance.


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    "Internet firms increasingly show us less of the wide world, locating us in the neighborhood of the familiar. The risk, as Eli Pariser shows, is that each of us may unwittingly come to inhabit a ghetto of one."

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