Follow the Filter Bubble

Newspapers embrace personalization…readers, not so much.

/ May 14th, 2011 /

Personalized news is all the rage these days: the Washington Post and the New York Times are launching customized news sites; the Times now offers a list of personalized article recommendations on its home page; and the LA Times uses a personality quiz to sort its readers into horoscope-like types (apparently, I’m a “dynamo”) and matches them to stories accordingly.

But a new study (free download available here) suggests that newspapers might be wise to step on the brakes. Neil Thurman, a senior lecturer in the journalism department at the City University London, interviewed editors at top US and UK papers and found that explicit personalization features, which allow users to indicate their interests and receive a custom-tailored selection of articles, have so far been pretty unpopular. An editor at the Guardian reported “single-digit take up,” and a New York Times editor said that only “a relatively small number of users” had jumped at the opportunity to personalize their news.

How do editors explain this reluctance? Many of Thurman’s interviewees suspected that uptake was low because readers lacked the time, motivation and self-knowledge to customize their news. Given this perception, it’s not surprising that a lot of the newspaper sites are ramping up automatic personalization, which guesses readers’ preferences based on their browsing behavior. Guardian blogger Roy Greenslade points out that automatic personalization features on the sites in Thurman’s study grew by 60% between 2007 and 2009, while explicit personalization only grew by 20%.

The working assumption seems to be that while most readers prefer to be in a personalization bubble, they’re too overextended or lazy or self-doubting to create it themselves. But isn’t it possible that readers are ignoring these features because they don’t want them?

This raises another question: if reader demand isn’t a primary driver of the news personalization trend, what is? Money, for one thing. After all, as Eli points out, algorithms are cheaper than human staff members, and personalization allows for more targeted advertising.

The creativity that cannot be bubble-wrapped

/ May 13th, 2011 /

In spite of Eli’s and this blogger’s concern that filter bubbles could put a damper on innovation and creativity, there is one realm that  is evidently immune to the filter: the humorous internet meme.

Whether photo-shopping, re-mixing, re-producing or auto-tuning, online denizens show no shortage of creativity in riffing off of each other and, to reference Arthur Koestler again, “bisociating” two ideas into new, clever, creations.

You’re no doubt familiar with the “Charlie Bit My Finger” phenomenon (if not, do a search and enjoy the hundreds – or thousands – of knock offs on the original home video sensation). I thank Michael Agger over at Slate for introducing me this morning to an endless trove of similar comic collaborations. Know Your Meme will chart you through the history of the Bed Intruder, the Double Rainbow, the Fashionable Chinese Bum, and countless others. (If you don’t want to waste hours of your day, do not check out Super Cut Movie Cliches.)

Perhaps the filter bubble can’t stifle humorous creativity precisely because, as Eli writes about, humor is one of the few things that manages to pierce our bubbles. If you glance at any “top emailed” or “most popular” list, you’re certain to see humorous articles and videos monopolizing the list. For anyone who’s spent more than an hour online, it’s almost not worth explaining why this is so. Who can resist an opportunity to laugh, whether it comes in the form of a forwarded email, a Facebook post or a link on our favorite online mag?

But should we be encouraged by the the penetrability of humor? Probably not. The darker side of humor is that it represents one the “junk foods” we do tend to feast off of online – along with gossip, cute animals, morally shocking news and, of course, porn. None of these items are likely to be slowed down by our filter bubbles. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. But when Antoine Dodson is the one thing we’re sharing and collaborating on, it’s nothing to sing (or auto-tune) about.

Algorithmic dating: OKCupid’s 10 most divisive questions

/ May 12th, 2011 /

As The Filter Bubble describes, OKCupid takes the logic of Google personalized search and applies it to the search for love (or, at minimum, sex). A friend there was kind enough to send me the list of the 10 questions that most evenly divide OKCupid users into groups — a key part of the personalization process. (This isn’t necessarily the order in which viewers see them.)

They’re pretty intense — especially the last, which is a doozy. But when it comes to increasing the match rate, they seem to work. Here they are.

1. What’s your deal with harder drugs (not marijuana)?

  • I do drugs regularly.
  • I do drugs occasionally.
  • I’ve done drugs in the past, but no longer.
  • I never do drugs.

2. How often do you keep your promises?

  • My word is my bond.  No exceptions.
  • Whenever possible
  • Usually
  • When convenient

3. Do you take prevention of STD transmission seriously (making sure your partner has been tested, using protection, being upfront if you’re at risk, etc.)?

  • Yes
  • No

4. If you were in a serious relationship and you learned that your partner cheated on you one drunken night, could you forgive him/her?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Maybe
  • I don’t believe in monogamy

5. Is it ever ok for a man to hit a woman?

  • Yes
  • Only in self-defense.
  • No

6. To you, is abortion an option in case of an unwanted accidental pregnancy?

  • Yes
  • No

7. Are you looking for a partner to have children with?

  • Yes
  • No

8. Is homosexuality a sin?

  • Yes
  • No

9. Does smoking disgust you?

  • Yes
  • No

10. You have just discovered that your eight year old daughter has been raped. The most important thing to do now is….

  • Punish the violator, legally or otherwise
  • Comfort the child
  • Get past this as quickly as possible
  • Handle this quietly


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.)

Information about you, sold to the highest bidder

/ May 11th, 2011 /

Businessman John Wanamaker (1838-1922), who invented the price tag and owned one of the country’s first department stores, once said “Half my advertising budget is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

If only Wanamaker could’ve lived to see retargeting. A form of advertising that is quietly taking the Internet by storm, retargeting allows companies to advertise only to people who are already interested.

If you’ve ever searched for a flight on Kayak, you’ve seen retargeting in action. If you leave the site without booking a fare, Kayak installs a cookie on your Web browser — a little piece of code that says you’re interested in, say, flights from NYC to Chicago. Kayak sells this cookie to a middleman company, which auctions it off to the highest bidder — in this case, maybe an airline like Delta. Delta then puts up ads for fares from NYC to Chicago on other sites you visit, in hopes of convincing you to reconsider. If statistics like these are to be believed, you actually might.

Oh yeah, and the entire process is automated and takes less than a second.

The retargeting business is booming: The Economist reports that money spent on real-time bidding has skyrocketed in the past year. It’s not hard to see why. Retailers love retargeting because it solves the Wanamaker Problem: companies don’t have to worry about wasting their ad budget (or rather, as much of it) on pitching people who aren’t interested.

For media companies, though, the retargeting boom spells bad news. As the Economist puts it:

These days some media firms can charge relatively high rates for online ads on the grounds that their websites are frequented by the young or the affluent. Increasingly, advertisers are learning how to reach the same people on other websites, for less money…In short, content is no longer king online. Information about users is what really matters.

And as for the rest of us, the users? Seems like we’re gonna have to get used to being followed around by airfares — and any other products we might browse online.







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    "Eli Pariser isn't just the smartest person I know thinking about the relationship of digital technology to participation in the democratic process—he is also the most experienced. The Filter Bubble reveals how the world we encounter is shaped by programs whose very purpose is to narrow what we see and increase the predictability of our responses. Anyone who cares about the future of human agency in a digital landscape should read this book—especially if it is not showing up in your recommended reads on Amazon."

    Douglas Rushkoff, author of Life Inc. and Program or Be Programmed

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