Follow the Filter Bubble

Filter bubbles, meet Upworthy

/ March 26th, 2012 /

Here’s the challenge: as more and more people discover news and content through Facebook-like personalized feeds, the stuff that really matters falls out of the picture. In the Darwinian environment of the hyper-relevant news feed, content about issues like homelessness or climate change can’t compete with goofy viral videos, celebrity news, and kittens. The public sphere falls out of view. And that matters, because while we can lose sight of our common problems, they don’t lose sight of us.

That problem was one of the main reasons I wrote The Filter Bubble. And today, I’m launching Upworthy, a new website I’ve co-founded with Peter Koechley (formerly of The Onion), to try to do something about it. Every day, we’ll be searching the Internet for the best online content that’s highly shareable and clickable and actually important. Hopefully, we can help bring attention and focus to stuff that really matters in a viral format that can reach millions.

Although the site launches today, we’ve been experimenting with how to super-charge content about stuff that matters for a while. And the cool thing about this stuff is that when you do it right, you can reach far beyond like-minded groups. For example, this inspiring video about gay marriage that we helped draw attention to at MoveOn got seen by over a million people who are against gay marriage. So there’s real bubble-popping potential here.

Check it out, and tell me what you think on Twitter at @elipariser. It’s really exciting, after spending a while researching and thinking about this problem, to take a stab at doing something about it.

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.

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!)

Personalization gets physical – and temperamental

/ June 29th, 2011 /

In the market of personalization, data is currency.

Companies like Google and Acxiom track your clicks, purchases and likes, converting them into a personal profile they can then sell to targeted advertisers.

Up until now that profile has been fairly static. What online advertisers know about you – your location, gender, purchasing preferences, favorite news sources – doesn’t change much from day to day, let alone from hour to hour. Your profile is also largely based on (semi-)conscious choices – what you click on, like, etc. – and advertisers can only infer so much about your physical and emotional state.

But that may all change in the next year or two, according to Tim Ferris, one of a growing number of “Self-quantifiers.”

Like other entrepreneurs profiled in the Financial Times this month, Ferris uses gadgets and automated spreadsheets that can track our bodies’ biorhythms, including REM cycles, calorie intake, heart beat, blood pressure, glucose levels and even vitamin deficiencies (just plunk a tracking device in your toilet bowl). Those data streams can then be combined to infer how stressed you are, when you’re drowsy and, increasingly, what mood you’re in.  It’s not about navel-gazing, though. Self-quantifiers hope to use the bio-feedback to manage attention spans at work, stress throughout the day, diet, and sleep habits. Their bio-signal patterns can also serve as red flags for oncoming illnesses.

Self-quantifying services could end up using fee-based revenue models, but more likely they’ll go the way of the cloud – offering free-ish services and making up their profits from selling data to advertisers. At least, that’s what Ferris predicts.

“I think, as soon as the next 12 or 24 months, that people will have to opt out of self-tracking, as opposed to opt in,” he says, “much like GPS and geo tagging,” a feature of smartphones that records users’ geographic location automatically for use in various consumer mobile applications.

And privacy advocates agree:

Imagining three years worth of heart rate data or depression symptoms travelling through mobile devices – potentially being offered for sale to drug or insurance companies, exploited by advertisers or hacked by cyber criminals – puts watchdog groups on alert. “What consumers need to realise is there’s a huge, huge demand for information about their activities, and the protections for the information about their activities are far, far, far less than what they think,” says Lee Tien, a privacy attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “A lot of these cloud services fall outside the federal and state privacy regimes.”

But being exploited by big pharma might not be the worst of it (assuming drug companies are trying to cure the conditions they believe you to have). Imagine if advertisers could sense when you’re hungry, angry, depressed or randy. Will they want to push products that mitigate your mood – or aggravate it? Craving carbs? Time to order in from Cinnabon. Pissed off? There’s a sale on glocks in the next county. Feeling blue? We have just the perfect pint of Ben & Jerry’s / guide to assisted suicide for you. Got an itch? Okay, you get the picture.

Google’s ‘Me on the Web’: friend or foe?

/ June 28th, 2011 /

Last year, Eric Schmidt, then-CEO of Google, famously predicted that young people would soon be given the opportunity to change their names upon reaching adulthood, lest the wayward photos, status updates and tweets of youth be scrutinized by would-be employers. “I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time,” Schmidt added.

Schmidt later claimed he was kidding about the whole name-change thing, but his comment was a troubling indication of Google’s tendency to shirk responsibility for its role in creating an online world in which everything is “recorded by everyone all the time.” After all, as Chris Williams at the UK Register pointed out, Google has “profited handsomely from the fact that society doesn’t understand the consequences” of posting oodles of information on the Internet.

Lately, though, the company has shown signs that it is starting to take the matter of online reputation more seriously. Google recently released a new tool called “Me on the Web,” whose stated purpose is to help users manage their online identities. The tool makes it easier for users to set up Google alerts that notify them when their names appear online, and includes tips for how to get negative information removed or (more likely) bumped to a lower position in search results.

This sounds good, but (of course) there’s a catch: in order to take advantage of the nifty new tool, users have to create a Google profile. Far from making your information more private, explains Dan Tynan of PC World, Google profiles are public by default and “are about managing the information people can gather about you by, essentially, providing more of it.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: sites like charge clients an arm and a leg for burying unflattering content in an avalanche of positive links. Since, for many users, a Google profile is likely to be a high-ranking link in search results, “Me on the Web” is basically providing a watered-down version of that service for free.

But the requirement that “Me on the Web” users make Google profiles has led bloggers like Tynan and Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land to suspect that there may be an ulterior motive behind the tool: getting more users to create Google profiles in hopes of posing a serious challenge to Facebook. In its current form, concludes Sullivan, “‘Me on the Web’ seems less about telling you what Google knows about you from the web and more about helping Google understand who you are on the web.”

So which is it? A genuine attempt to give users more control over our online identities, or a sneaky ploy to wrest yet more personal information from us? Perhaps a bit of both. Either way, it doesn’t seem likely that “Me on the Web” is the silver bullet that will solve the problem of the haunted cyberpast.






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    "'Personalization' sounds pretty benign, but Eli Pariser skillfully builds a case that its excess on the Internet will unleash an information calamity—unless we heed his warnings. Top notch journalism and analysis."

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