Baby Carrots, the Internet, and The Filter Bubble

Why would a web service filter the information that I see?

The information created in the entire history of humanity until 2010 is the same amount of information created online every two days. To filter that vast set of information, web companies have adopted the, “if you like this, you’ll like that” approach to curation.

What started as a tool for presenting product preferences quickly became a model for presenting information, says Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble. Today’s holy grail of web curators: Relevance.

We are each surrounded by a membrane of filters that determine what information comes in and what is left out. We are unaware of the processes that determine these filters.

Three challenges presented by this filter bubble include:

The Distortion Problem
The “like” concept creates a bias. It’s easy to like a marathon, but not so easy to like genocide in Darfur. That doesn’t mean the news is not relevant.

Balance
Filters diminish balance. We want to see news about Justin Bieber, but that needs to be balanced with news about Afghanistan. We eat the junk food we crave but we should target the nutrition we need.

A Matter of Control
We are putting increasing power in the hand of computer algorithms to tell us what to view. Editors used to serve as gatekeepers to information. The Internet swept away gatekeepers. The new gatekeepers are code. These new gatekeepers don’t even have the pretense of civic ethics that the old gatekeepers did.

What can be done?

  1. Algorithm Ethics: Data sorts need to cause us to encounter multiple points of view.
  2. Filter Literacy: As we consider digital literacy, we need to consider our knowledge of the filters.
  3. Baby Carrots: Because people’s information environments are much more personalized, we need to ensure that the “nutritious snacks” make it through the filter bubble.

“We need the Internet to be as good as we hoped it would be.
And it won’t if we’re stuck in a bubble of one.”
– Eli Pariser

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s 2012 Media Learning Seminar in Miami Florida brought together leaders of community foundations, media professionals, technology entrepreneurs, researchers, educators, and foundation staff in the foundation’s quest for informed and engaged communities. I attended as a representative of the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, a grantee of Knight Foundation. Read my articles on the conference here.

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