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The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think [Paperback]

by Eli Pariser
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 24, 2012 0143121235 978-0143121237 Reprint

In December 2009, Google began customizing its search results for all users, and we entered a new era of personalization. With little notice or fanfare, our online experience is changing, as the websites we visit are increasingly tailoring themselves to us. In this engaging and visionary book, MoveOn.org board president Eli Pariser lays bare the personalization that is already taking place on every major website, from Facebook to AOL to ABC News. As Pariser reveals, this new trend is nothing short of an invisible revolution in how we consume information, one that will shape how we learn, what we know, and even how our democracy works.

 

The race to collect as much personal data about us as possible, and to tailor our online experience accordingly, is now the defining battle for today’s internet giants like Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. Behind the scenes, a burgeoning industry of data companies is tracking our personal information to sell to advertisers, from our political leanings to the hiking boots we just browsed on Zappos.

 

As a result, we will increasingly each live in our own, unique information universe—what Pariser calls “the filter bubble.” We will receive mainly news that is pleasant, familiar and confirms our beliefs—and since these filters are invisible, we won’t know what is being hidden from us. Our past interests will determine what we are exposed to in the future, leaving less room for the unexpected encounters that spark creativity, innovation and the democratic exchange of ideas.

 

Drawing on interviews with both cyber-skeptics and cyber-optimists, from the co-founder of OK Cupid, an algorithmically-driven dating website, to one of the chief visionaries of U.S. information warfare, THE FILTER BUBBLE  tells the story of how the Internet, a medium built around the open flow of ideas, is closing in on itself under the pressure of commerce and “monetization.” It peeks behind the curtain at the server farms, algorithms, and geeky entrepreneurs that have given us this new reality, and investigates the consequences of corporate power in the digital age.

 

THE FILTER BUBBLE reveals how personalization could undermine the internet’s original purpose as an open platform for the spread of ideas, and leave us all in an isolated, echoing world. But it is not too late to change course. Pariser lays out a new vision for the web, one that embraces the benefits of technology without turning a blind eye to its negative consequences, and will ensure that the Internet lives up to its transformative promise.



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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Author Q&A with Eli Pariser

Q: What is a “Filter Bubble”?

A: We’re used to thinking of the Internet like an enormous library, with services like Google providing a universal map. But that’s no longer really the case. Sites from Google and Facebook to Yahoo News and the New York Times are now increasingly personalized – based on your web history, they filter information to show you the stuff they think you want to see. That can be very different from what everyone else sees – or from what we need to see.

Your filter bubble is this unique, personal universe of information created just for you by this array of personalizing filters. It’s invisible and it’s becoming more and more difficult to escape.

Q: I like the idea that websites might show me information relevant to my interests—it can be overwhelming how much information is available I already only watch TV shows and listen to radio programs that are known to have my same political leaning. What’s so bad about this?

A: It’s true: We’ve always selected information sources that accord with our own views. But one of the creepy things about the filter bubble is that we’re not really doing the selecting. When you turn on Fox News or MSNBC, you have a sense of what their editorial sensibility is: Fox isn’t going to show many stories that portray Obama in a good light, and MSNBC isn’t going to the ones that portray him badly. Personalized filters are a different story: You don’t know who they think you are or on what basis they’re showing you what they’re showing. And as a result, you don’t really have any sense of what’s getting edited out – or, in fact, that things are being edited out at all.

Q: How does money fit into this picture?

A: The rush to build the filter bubble is absolutely driven by commercial interests. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that if you want to have lots of people use your website, you need to provide them with personally relevant information, and if you want to make the most money on ads, you need to provide them with relevant ads. This has triggered a personal information gold rush, in which the major companies – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and the like – are competing to create the most comprehensive portrait of each of us to drive personalized products. There’s also a whole “behavior market” opening up in which every action you take online – every mouse click, every form entry – can be sold as a commodity.

Q: What is the Internet hiding from me?

A: As Google engineer Jonathan McPhie explained to me, it’s different for every person – and in fact, even Google doesn’t totally know how it plays out on an individual level. At an aggregate level, they can see that people are clicking more. But they can’t predict how each individual’s information environment is altered.

In general, the things that are most likely to get edited out are the things you’re least likely to click on. Sometimes, this can be a real service – if you never read articles about sports, why should a newspaper put a football story on your front page? But apply the same logic to, say, stories about foreign policy, and a problem starts to emerge. Some things, like homelessness or genocide, aren’t highly clickable but are highly important.

Q: Which companies or Websites are personalizing like this?

A: In one form or another, nearly every major website on the Internet is flirting with personalization. But the one that surprises people most is Google. If you and I Google the same thing at the same time, we may get very different results. Google tracks hundreds of “signals” about each of us – what kind of computer we’re on, what we’ve searched for in the past, even how long it takes us to decide what to click on – and uses it to customize our results. When the result is that our favorite pizza parlor shows up first when we Google pizza, it’s useful. But when the result is that we only see the information that is aligned with our religious or social or political beliefs, it’s difficult to maintain perspective.

Q: Are any sites being transparent about their personalization?

A: Some sites do better than others. Amazon, for example, is often quite transparent about the personalization it does: “We’re showing you Brave New World because you bought 1984.” But it’s one thing to personalize products and another to personalize whole information flows, like Google and Facebook are doing. And very few users of those services are even marginally aware that this kind of filtering is at work.

Q: Does this issue of personalization impact my privacy or jeopardize my identity at all?

A: Research psychologists have known for a while that the media you consume shapes your identity. So when the media you consume is also shaped by your identity, you can slip into a weird feedback loop. A lot of people see a simple version of this on Facebook: You idly click on an old classmate, Facebook reads that as a friendship, and pretty soon you’re seeing every one of John or Sue’s posts.

Gone awry, personalization can create compulsive media – media targeted to appeal to your personal psychological weak spots. You can find yourself eating the equivalent of information junk food instead of having a more balanced information diet.

Q: You make it clear that while most Websites’ user agreements say they won’t share our personal information, they also maintain the right to change the rules at any time. Do you foresee sites changing those rules to profit from our online personas?

A: They already have. Facebook, for example, is notorious for its bait-and-switch tactics when it comes to privacy. For a long time, what you “Liked” on Facebook was private, and the site promised to keep it that way. Then, overnight, they made that information public to the world, in order to make it easier for their advertisers to target specific subgroups.

There’s an irony in the fact that while Rolex needs to get Tom Cruise’s permission to put his face on a billboard, it doesn’t need to get my permission to advertise my endorsement to my friends on Facebook. We need laws that give people more rights in their personal data.

Q: Is there any way to avoid this personalization? What if I’m not logged into a site?

A: Even if you’re not logged into Google, for example, an engineer told me there are 57 signals that the site uses to figure out who you are: whether you’re on a Mac or PC or iPad, where you’re located when you’re Googling, etc. And in the near future, it’ll be possible to “fingerprint” unique devices, so that sites can tell which individual computer you’re using. That’s why erasing your browser cookies is at best a partial solution—it only partially limits the information available to personalizers.

What we really need is for the companies that power the filter bubble to take responsibility for the immense power they now have – the power to determine what we see and don’t see, what we know and don’t know. We need them to make sure we continue to have access to public discourse and a view of the common good. A world based solely on things we “Like” is a very incomplete world.

I’m optimistic that they can. It’s worth remembering that newspapers weren’t always informed by a sense of journalistic ethics. They existed for centuries without it. It was only when critics like Walter Lippman began to point out how important they were that the newspapers began to change. And while journalistic ethics aren’t perfect, because of them we have been better informed over the last century. We need algorithmic ethics to guide us through the next.

Q: What are the business leaders at Google and Facebook and Yahoo saying about their responsibilities?

A: To be honest, they’re frustratingly coy. They tend to frame the trend in the passive tense: Google’s Eric Schmidt recently said “It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them,” rather than “Google is making it very hard…” Mark Zuckerberg perfectly summed up the tension in personalization when he said “A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” But he refuses to engage with what that means at a societal level – especially for the people in Africa.

Q: Your background is as a political organizer for the liberal Website MoveOn.org. How does that experience inform your book?

A: I’ve always believed the Internet could connect us all together and help create a better, more democratic world. That’s what excited me about MoveOn – here we were, connecting people directly with each other and with political leaders to create change.

But that more democratic society has yet to emerge, and I think it’s partly because while the Internet is very good at helping groups of people with like interests band together (like MoveOn), it’s not so hot at introducing people to different people and ideas. Democracy requires discourse and personalization is making that more and more elusive.

And that worries me, because we really need the Internet to live up to that connective promise. We need it to help us solve global problems like climate change, terrorism, or natural resource management which by their nature require massive coordination, and great wisdom and ingenuity. These problems can’t be solved by a person or two – they require whole societies to participate. And that just won’t happen if we’re all isolated in a web of one.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"A powerful indictment of the current system." ---The Wall Street Journal --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (April 24, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143121235
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143121237
  • Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 5.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #30,248 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Eli Pariser is the board president and former executive director of MoveOn.org, which at five million members is one of the largest citizens' organizations in American politics. During his time leading MoveOn, he sent 937,510,800 e-mails to members in his name. He has written op-eds for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal and has appeared on The Colbert Report, Good Morning America, Fresh Air, and World News Tonight.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
170 of 176 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
The Filter Bubble is an outstanding book--a compelling and important argument, delivered persuasively through real reporting, analysis, telling anecdote and hard data.

One of Eli Pariser's central points is that personalized internet services--Google, Facebook, advertising--can put you into a "you loop", in which they show you what you think you want, and then you wind up wanting those things more because you see them more often. Invisibly, your momentary impulses (click on this, ignore that) shape your reality, and your reality shapes what you respond to.

Since reading the book, I've found myself compulsively testing one of its main case studies: Google's automatically personalized search results. Try searching for "guns": I don't see the NRA on the first page, but friends do. Huge differences on "abortion" too: some people see Planned Parenthood, other people see Catholic.com. Even searching for "bias" shows different results to me vs my wife!

Drawing on history, academic research, exclusive interviews, and a huge range of other sources, the author takes a hard look at the algorithms that increasingly shape how all of us think. He contends that unchecked profit-centric personalization threatens democracy. When you read the book, you'll come away convinced. And you'll appreciate how the book itself makes our democracy stronger.
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67 of 72 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't miss The Filter Bubble! May 14, 2011
By cpk
Format:Hardcover
The Filter Bubble does one of the most important things a book CAN do -- it sounds a warning about a major problem that has, til now, been mostly invisible. But Pariser doesn't just tell us how giants like Google and Facebook are limiting the information we see. He also explains, in clear, energetic prose, how the personalization of the Internet is affecting our relationships, our identities, our creativity and our democracy. As an added bonus, the book is a highly engaging and entertaining read -- packed with insights and anecdotes from fields as diverse as urban planning, advertising, literature, sociology, and computer science. At a time when exposure to surprising and challenging information is getting harder and harder to come by, this book will definitely broaden your perspective.
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57 of 63 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
This riveting book picks up where Pariser's explosive TED talk left off. In a voice that is as fun to read as it is smart, The Filter Bubble arms readers with a thorough understanding of the powers at play on the Internet today -- how they invisibly affect your experience, the implications of these effects for the individual as well as for society, and what each of us can do about it.

Anyone who Googles, gets news online, shops online, or uses Facebook simply must read this book.
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
By Matt
Format:Hardcover
The Filter Bubble is a book everybody who cares about the Internet needs to read!

We're entering a new period of growth in the basic functioning of the Internet. The web we once knew is changing - it's becoming personalized. This isn't always a bad thing - the Internet is massive and we need ways to make it relevant. But what's alarming is that these new personalization filters are changing things without us knowing and they're focused on making money.

Websites need clicks and they're going to show us whatever articles, search results, ads, or data they can to get those clicks. This is a dangerous proposition. There are certain things we NEED to see, but might never click on. Like news from the ongoing wars in the Middle East. Also concerning is that the increase in personalization means we'll keep seeing things that re-affirm or personal beliefs. If you think partisan bickering is bad now, just wait.

It's not all doom and gloom, far from it. What's most exciting is how early the book comes in the development of 'the new personalized web'. It's not a historical account, it's actively part of the ongoing discussions happening at Google, Facebook, and the New York Times (among many others). Eli has managed to place himself just in front of the tech wave - no small feat - while providing a detailed analysis of what's currently taking place. He also offers clear ways to resolve the situation, ways that work with the existing system and help protect the open Internet we all love.

Very well worth the read - and then some!
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28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars terrific May 12, 2011
Format:Hardcover
This book is so much like Eli Pariser himself that reading it is like a series of electrifying conversations with him. It is provocative, eye-opening, thoughtful, alarming, full of terrific stories and thoroughly entertaining. Whether or not the Internet is your focus, your won't forget your evenings with Eli.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant Analysis of Silicon Valley's Power May 16, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Am I seeing an advertisement for life insurance because of my good credit score, or because tracking software says I rarely search for doctors and therefore look healthy?

If Facebook eliminates a video of war carnage, is that a token of respect for the wounded or one more reflexive effort of a major company to ingratiate itself with a Washington establishment currently committed to indefinite military engagement in the Middle East?

Does Google downrank sites because of their poor quality, or to maximize its own ad revenues?

Questions like these will persist as long as the "filter bubble" exists. Pariser does a fantastic job showing how the web is increasingly becoming a hall of mirrors, a perplexing set of chutes and ladders where algorithms can suddenly alter your view of the world (and status) without telling you.

Read this brilliant book to find out the real costs of an "instant information age."
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Only for a College Class
Interesting stuff I suppose. Not all bad if you are interested in the science behind surfing the internet. Read more
Published 8 days ago by Insight
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspired me to cut down on my Web activity (not including this post!...
Ever wanted to know just how much companies know about you thanks to your activities on the Internet? Eli Pariser's book "The Filter Bubble" will shock you to new levels. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Ashley Dufault
5.0 out of 5 stars A timely message well-expressed
In the introduction to The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser delivers a very thought-provoking message: the internet is getting better and better at knowing what we want and personalizing... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Angie Boyter
1.0 out of 5 stars Better than Ambien, and no hangover!
Disappointing. A good premise, but it could have been fully explained and exhaustively explored in about 10 paragraphs. Consequently, the book d-r-a-a-a-a-a-a-g-s along FOREVER!
Published 5 months ago by Patchnparrot
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read for fans of Huxley
The future of consensus opinion, culture and perceptions are all going to be based, not by what propaganda is spoon fed you, but based on what is NOT shared with you. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Hungrypoet
5.0 out of 5 stars The Filter Bubble
The Internet was championed as the great equalizer, the invention that would bring all of humanity together through access to information. Read more
Published 10 months ago by lickteig
5.0 out of 5 stars The shallows on steroids?
Client problem
A lot of our clients are struggling with the speed of change. In social media, in marketing and in customer behavjour. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Ron Immink
2.0 out of 5 stars What it is and is not
I am going to find some fault with the overall direction. I thought this might be a book on how search engines are being manipulated and not producing honest objective results. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Scott H. Irving
5.0 out of 5 stars Unfiltered presentation of a genuine problem
I liked The Filter Bubble as soon as I saw its front cover. It's one of those concepts that you can immediately intuitively understand if you use the Internet on a daily basis: The... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Adam Luoranen
1.0 out of 5 stars Truly execrable nonsense
This is the most annoying book I've read for several years. My disposition is generally that of a social liberal, but after reading "The Bubble Filter" I found myself compelled to... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Kuma
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