Follow the Filter Bubble

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 Reputation.com 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.


Facebookers’ social networks dwindling in diversity


/ June 20th, 2011 /

Pew’s latest study on the Internet got a lot of press last week, reassuring Facebook junkies (like me) that using the social network does not – as some have warned – turn us into anti-social hermits whose online “friends” are mere substitutes for real relationships. Instead, according to Pew, Facebook users not only have more close friendships than the average American, they also are more trusting of others, get more social and emotional support, and are more politically active.

Less reported in the media, however, were the study’s findings on possible filter bubble effects of Facebook. Are online social network sites (SNS) narrowing our information streams, leaving us less exposed to a diversity of views, as Eli warns?

The good news is that SNS’s are not, according to Pew, making us more close-minded. When asked whether they agreed with statements like “I believe that there are two sides to every question and I try to look at them both,” Internet and social network users were just as willing to be open-minded as other Americans. The one exception were Myspace users, who were more open-minded than any one else (theories on why are welcome in the comments section).

The possible bad news is that Facebookers’ networks have dwindled in diversity over the past few years. In 2008 SNS members, like all Internet users, had more diverse circles of friends than non-Internet users. Using socioeconomic ties as a proxy for diversity, researchers assigned SNS and web users a diversity score of 45, with non-Internet users at 31. Two years later, however, SNS users had dropped to 39, not far above non-Internet users whose diversity ratings had risen to 38 (all Internet users were still up at 43). (See page vi for the numbers.)

Does that mean Facebook is making our social circles more homogeneous? It would be rash to leap to that conclusion. For one thing, the shift in diversity among Facebook users’ networks could be explained by a change in demographics over the past two years. (The study teased out the influence of age, education, etc. for the 2010 numbers (see page x), but not for 2008 so it’s impossible to tell.) The results should, however, make us puzzle – if not be outright concerned.  At best we can say that, unlike using the Internet as a whole,  spending time on Facebook does not diversify our lives. The question still remains if, at worst, it is making them more narrow.


Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee weighs in: “There’s danger in the filter bubble”


/ June 16th, 2011 /

In 1989, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim Berners-Lee) invented the World Wide Web. Since then, he’s been an advocate for his creation, preaching the gospel of openness against some of the encroaching forces. (This recent Scientific American article is especially worth reading.)

Recently, an attendee at an Internet Society conference in New York asked him about the filter bubble. Here’s a (slightly cleaned up) transcript of how he responded — emphasis mine.

The filter bubble phenomenon, I think that noun is applied to the idea that a search engine can get to know you and so it can get to know the source of things it thinks you’re interested in. You will end up in a bubble because you will reward the search engine — you will go to the search engine — it feeds you things which you’re excited about and happy about and it won’t feed you things which get you thinking.

. . . As a result, you end up being dedicated to your tribe. You will never understand as a Yankee why the Red Sox were so ‘cachuffed’ to beat you a couple of years ago. As an Israeli you will never understand why you’re upsetting the Palestinian people. So, there’s danger in the filter bubble… Once you’re bracketed as somebody who buys pretty expensive stuff, the web won’t show you the cheap stuff and so you wont believe that the cheap stuff exists. You’ll have a twisted view of the world.

So I think that’s a really interesting thing. Somebody mentioned the Web Science Trust. [This] discussion is very much what I call a web science issue, if you look at this sort of thing you really have to look at humanity connected as a very large system and you have to use a lot of different… you have to use sociology, psychology, you have to use economics and you have to use mathematics as well as computer science to figure out the web and figure out what the implications of this will be.

(The video is here, around minute 31.)

Pretty cool.


Visualize your filter bubble


/ June 16th, 2011 /

If you have not yet been tempted by your Facebook friends, let me invite you to enter the creepy, narcissistic world of the Museum of Me.

Intel’s clever marketing team has created a visual experience that, after sucking in your friend network, posts and likes from Facebook, lets you walk through galleries of your life.

If you can stomach the solipsism, wait til you arrive at the final gallery, which morphs into – yes – a bubble of all your chattering friends with you right at the center.

If, however, that sounds like too much navel gazing, here’s the clip from some guy Steven’s museum:


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