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Follow the Filter Bubble

Love in the filter bubble?


/ June 1st, 2011 /

Personalization algorithms already tell us what movies to watch, news stories to read and tunes to listen to. It was only a matter of time, then, that they’d tell us who to love.

Matching algorithms aren’t new to online dating services. EHarmony, Chemistry and OKCupid have long served up compatible mates based on dozens, if not hundreds, of questions singles answer on their sites.

But a new dating app, StreetSpark, is venturing out internet-wide to pick up clues on who you’re likely to become enamored with. Love seekers on the site can plug into their Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter accounts to discover potential lovers with similar tweets, profiles and cafe haunts. (That, at least, is the concept. So far this single has yet to be sent a match.)

It’s like “traditional” online personalization but in reverse. Instead of telling you what you’ll like based upon your friends’ preferences, it tells you who you’ll want to be friends with based on what you like.

StreetSpark touts their service as giving “serendipity a helping hand.” Normally we have to wait for luck to bring us face to face with that special someone; StreetSpark provides us with a helpful homing device right in our smartphone.

It’s an odd usage of “serendipity,” though, which describes the phenomenon of making desirable discoveries by accident. If you instruct your iPhone to tell you when there’s a sympatico mate in your hood, bumping into them can’t really be described as “an accident.” Of course, the makers of StreetSpark are aware of that contradiction and are tongue and cheek in using the term.

But it’s more than a semantic quibble. Part of appreciating the beauty of “making discoveries by accident” is to understand that sometimes we don’t know what we’re looking for. If you’re a romantic, that can especially be true in the case of love. It’s not as if we have the profile of “the perfect guy” in our head and falling in love is just a matter of luck when you’ll run into that profile. The “accident” of love is when we meet someone who doesn’t fit our pre-conceived ideal and yet, mysteriously, we fall head over heals. In the process, if we’re truly lucky, we’re opened up to a new, exciting and unknown world.


Select your 150 friends wisely


/ May 30th, 2011 /

Online technol0gy is transformative. It can make the world flat, spark revolutions and even wrap us into personalized filter bubbles. But there’s one thing technology hasn’t been able to do yet: expand our circle of friends.

You’re probably familiar with Dunbar’s “150 rule:” the reason that humans tend to limit the size of their communities to 150 people – whether in prehistoric towns, in military units or in cults – is because the human brain maxes out at 15o friends.

Now it turns out that even Twitter can’t free us of this 150 ceiling. Bruno Concalves and colleagues at Indiana U recently looked at 1.7 million tweeters over 6 months to see how many connections they kept up (connections, as opposed to mere followers, had actual back-and-forth exchanges). True to Dunbar’s prediction, twits generally don’t maintain more than 100-200 friends.

That’s bad news for the filter bubble. You can imagine one hope of avoiding a personalized information bubble is to widen your circle of friends in order to include folks with different viewpoints. That way you might expand the information that arrives on your laptop screen. But, as Eli points out in the intro to his book, merely adding friends to your FaceBook list doesn’t mean you’ll interact with them. No interaction means those “friends” will be virtually invisible on your feed. You’re still stuck in a community of 150.

The only way to truly escape the bubble may be to replace some of your current connections with people who disagree with you – and actually engage them in discussion. Of course, if we’re concerned about the limitations of human behavior, that may be the most pollyanish hope of all.


Like: the enemy of love?


/ May 30th, 2011 /

I’m not sure Jonathan Franzen had filter bubbles in mind, but in yesterday’s NYT’s op-ed the author points out yet another casualty of being surrounded by things you like: love.

Excerpt from the article:

A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb “to like” from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving. The striking thing about all consumer products — and none more so than electronic devices and applications — is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)


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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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