Follow the Filter Bubble

Yahoo’s man+machine algorithm: the numbers are in


/ August 3rd, 2011 /

So how well does personalization work, anyway?

Over at Yahoo, according to FastCompany, quite well. Since setting up their crack personalization team in 2009, clicks on Yahoo’s “Today” box have increased 270%.

That’s saying personalization makes us four more times likely to click on a link. Whether you believe personalization makes the internet more efficient, more fractured or more mind-numbing, that’s a pretty impressive number.

For those concerned about the self-looping and fragmenting effects of the filter bubble, the good news is that Yahoo’s algorithm is not entirely human-free. Editors are in charge of curating the 50-100 versions of the “Today” module that could pop up on your Yahoo home page; the bots just guide them to which stories work best and, ultimately, which take on “Today” you’ll see.

Humans are also, thankfully, still in charge of deciding when civics trumps the bottom line:

On the day Fast Company visited, President Obama was slated to give an important speech that evening on the draw down of troops in Afghanistan.The algorithm predicted that the story on the speech would do miserably with Yahoo visitors. And indeed, according to the dashboard, it wasn’t getting many takers. But the editors still flipped the override switch, ruling that the story would be shown to all visitors to the home page at least once, irrespective of what the algorithm said. It was, and Yahoo willingly took the hit on clicks. Some stories, the editors say, everyone simply needs to see.


What’s the Internet hiding? Lets find out.


/ June 8th, 2011 /

What does the filter bubble look like? We decided to do a little experiment to help visualize what’s taking place.

The comparisons below only scratch the surface of what the Internet’s filters are up to, but they give a good troubling idea.


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.


The – true – Republic of Twitter


/ May 11th, 2011 /

As has been mentioned before in this blog and in Eli’s book, the internet has not turned out to be the democratic utopia of information it was once hoped to be. If our information is not being piped through (albeit new) elite media hubs, then it is being filtered through the bubble of our and our friends’ preferences.

That’s at least the case for most of the internet. One exception, however, may be Twitter.

Unlike Facebook and Google, Twitter doesn’t make assumptions about the tweets you’d prefer to see. What you sign up for is what you get. It’s bubble-free media.

Twitter, new research suggests, may also be anti-elitist. We’ all know about the Ashton Kutchers and Old Spice Men of mega-twit fame.  Turns out that, in spite of their gajillion followers, those Tweet Leviathans have little influence in spreading memes. Looking at 580 million tweets over 8 months and using some fancy statistical crunching, researchers found that mid-range tweeters (who have about 1,000 followers) are much more influential when it comes to creating and spreading hashtags.

Could that mean Twitter is indeed the democratic medium we’ve all been looking for? We don’t like to jump to conclusions based on one study (especially one with new-fangled statistical techniques), but the study’s findings temptingly align with the theory that on Twitter information roams free. (On an even more conjectural note, their research may also mean Twitter deserves credit on the “maximizing creativity by minimizing silos” front.)

The impressive research – which comes in two reports and which also tracked memes in stories longer than 140 characters – contains some other fun tidbits, although none directly relevant to the filter bubble. Of note:

  • Partly depending on whether memes (defined in longer stories as “short phrases”) started in mainstream news sites or blogs, they had disparate patterns of peaking and trothing online. (The researchers found 6 distinct patterns).
  • The influence of mainstream media v. blogs in spreading memes depends on the subject area. When it comes to Entertainment and Tech, for example, blogs rule.
  • Finally, don’t tell Bill Keller, but when comparing the influence of the New York Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, USA Today wins out on every beat, except for National News where it is bested by WSJ. (Note: even the authors are surprised by these results.)

That other – imperfect – gatekeeper


/ May 6th, 2011 /

The internet gave great hopes for the liberation of information. No longer controlled by elitist (or corporatist) editorial gatekeepers, now “all” the news (not just what was fit to print) could truly be accessible to the people. A new era of democratized media was dawning.

Well, that’s not exactly what happened. Writers like Evgeny Morozov point out that political power can still manipulate the internet to meet its ends. And as Eli discusses in The Filter Bubble, gatekeepers haven’t gone away – they’ve just been replaced with a new algorithmic breed, which bring their own set of concerns for democracy.

One of those concerns is what happens when the news we’re delivered is the news the personalized algorithms think we want. I’m a pretty worldly, news-savvy gal, but I admit that I can’t help clicking on those hat photos from the royal wedding or the latest gossip from Dancing with the Stars. If the personalization bots interpret those clicks as “Give the girl the fluff she wants”, how much more trash will be sent to tempt me – and how much “important” news will go missing from my news feeds?

As Eli puts it in his TED talk, the new gatekeepers may be turning us into junk-news gluttons. The old gate-keepers had their problems, but at least they made sure we got our news vegetables along with our dessert.

Or did they?

Today Slate reminded us that even our elitist of elite publishers can sideline the vegetables for sweeter fare. The day after the first GOP presidential debate of the 2012 campaign, an important marker in our political discourse, one would have thought the 4th Estate would have brought the event to our attention. Not so. The debate didn’t show up in print in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal until somewhere between pages A3-A19. What did make the front page? Stories about “Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, Pippa Middleton, and UFO sightings in Thailand.”

Now, in the editors’ defense, it was a debate populated by few real contenders. But still. Pippa Middleton?

Of course, since the news giants lost their captive print audiences, they’ve been in the same race to the lowest common denominator as have the personalization algorithms. Perhaps the NYT, WaPo and WSJ of 1995 would have had the debate on the front page. Either way, when it comes to getting a balanced diet of food, today we may be all on our own.


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