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The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You Hardcover – May 12, 2011
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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.
“Well-timed…a powerful indictment of the current system.” — THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
“Eli Pariser is no enemy of the Internet. The 30-year-old online organizer is the former executive director and now board president of the online liberal political group MoveOn.org. But while Pariser understands the influence of the Internet, he also knows the power of online search engines and social networks to control exactly how we get information—for good and for ill.” — TIME Magazine
“[An] important new inquiry into the dangers of excessive personalization… entertaining… provocative.” — THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
“Fascinating…a compelling deep-dive into the invisible algorithmic editing on the web, a world where we're being shown more of what algorithms think we want to see and less of what we should see.” — ATLANTIC.COM
“Pariser’s vision of the Internet’s near future is compelling.” — THE BOSTON GLOBE
— THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
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Top customer reviews
A lot of our clients are struggling with the speed of change. In social media, in marketing and in customer behavjour. They are also struggling with innovation .
A friend (thanks Alan Boyd) recommended "Filter Bubble". Boy(d) am I impressed. It is a book that covers the impact of the introduction of personalised search. My search results on "soccer" will be very different than yours (Ajax!). And that has all kinds of consequences.
Touches on privacy, data, innovation, culture, the role of news, democracy, marketing, selling, tracking, etc.
Reminds me of "From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg" and how the internet can be a source of good, but also a source of evil (like the invention of the book, that opened knowledge to the masses, but was then uses as a way to enforce dogmas though books such as the bible). Also reminds me of "Brandwashed", a nasty book about marketing.
If you had any doubts about the internet after reading "Future minds" and "The shallows", you be even more concerned. Big brother has arrived and is called Acxiom (billions of data profiles), Bluecavia (database of every computer, mobile device, piece of hardware), Google and Facebook.
Why is that important to business?
- Personalised search will make it more difficult to reach your target market.
- Personalised search will impact on your innovation capability.
- With the available data you can pinpoint clients to a very high degree.
- With the available data and technology you can influence buying behaviour in ways that you can't even imagine.
- Data is everything.
- You have to decide how ethical you want to be on data, tracking, influencing, branding and selling.
- Expect a backlash if you are not.
Learned lots of new words:
- Attention crash
- Click signals
- Naive realisme (we believe the world is as it appears to be)
- Confirmation bias
- Information obesity
Some interesting facts
Did you know that:
- The top 50 sites install 64 cookies each on your computer to track your behaviour
- 36% of Americans get their news through social media sites
- Yahoo uses the stream of search queries to make news
- 15% of Americans believed that Obama is Muslim.
- The percentage had doubled
- Targeted persuasion styles can increase effectiveness of marketing material by 30-40%
- The Netflix algorithm is better at making recommendations than you
- LinkedIn can forecast where you will be in 5 years time
- Personalisation will become the new marketing
- The next attractive man or woman who friends you on Facebook could turn out to be an advertisement for a bag of chips
- That in the future websites will morph to your personal preferences to increase your purchase intentions
We are dumbing down, hyper focus and bias displaces general knowledge, context, contrast, discovery, serendipity and ultimately innovation and creativity.
You literally become what you click. As with food, you are what information you consume (picture information obesity). With as the ultimate consequence an identity loop and the threat of monoculture (1984).
Through manipulation, curation, context and information flow you can be managed. Imagine a world where Google searches, Facebook likes, your e-mails, your documents (Google docs!), your DNA, your location data from your iPhone or Android, RFID on all the items you bought, the data from your cookies on your computer and more are all combined and are then used to:
The cloud is just a handful of companies. What would happen if Google would do evil and Facebook goes into politics (!!!).
A passionate plea
To end with the author;
As billions come online in India and Brazil and Africa, the Internet is transforming into a truly global place. Increasingly, it will be the place where we live our lives. But in the end, a small group of American companies may unilaterally dictate how billions of people work, play, communicate, and understand the world. Protecting the early vision of radical connectedness and user control should be an urgent priority for all of us.
The lessons for business; opportunity, threat, be aware, take a position
Just finished reading this for the second time. While some of the references are slightly dated (inevitable when writing about contemporary info culture) this tome points to an essential (and missing) aspect of media literacy. Teachers, grade school students, all, should be aware of the premises and insights within. Your data exhaust is one of your most valuable assets.
That danger is the risk that we will lose "serindipity," as our technological tools (including Google) seek to identify and present only the content which it knows we will be interested in, reducing or eliminating the opportunity to be exposed to new information, new ideas, and other viewpoints.
Pariser acknowledges that others have warned about this before, including Cass Sunstein in his book, Republic 2.0. Indeed, it was serindipity that led me to find Sunstein's book, and his misguided belief that government intervention would likely be required to avoid isolation in "enclaves." (Pariser reports that Sunstein has retreated from that suggestion.)
When I reviewed Republic 2.0, I believed that most consumers, or at least enough of us to matter, would actively seek out novel and different ideas.
But Pariser convinces me, in The Filter Bubble, that even the most thoughtful citizens, seeking to maintain exposure to new and different content and viewpoints, might be thwarted by the very tools we use to filter the flood of information.
Ironically more recently I had been becoming concerned that the results were starting to be "too good", with things my wife and I had been talking about coming up in searches, which I am hoping is more serendipity, rather than Google knowing me. But that is what this book is about and although there are a couple of instances where Pariser makes some statements that I think are a little optimistic (or pessimistic) overall I would argue that it is definitely a book that makes you think.
Clearly alternatives to Google and Bing and Yahoo exist, but DuckDuckGo for instance provides results that are just not quite as relevant and so I keep coming back to, well mostly Google, but I digress. The point of the book is to make you aware of the terms to the contract you are forming with any of those organisations or your social network provider(s) and what might be the outcome of this bargain.
Although I did find myself disagreeing with some of the things raised in the book (maybe I'm optimistic?) I found that I largely agreed that these are things we should be concerned about. And I think that's a good sign because generally when I watch TV and they are telling us what to worry about (oh my god: ice cream is mass produced in factories!) I get angry, with this I rather enjoyed the book and the issues and possible solutions raised. I guess a big part of that is that he did not dress this up as a sensationalist thing and hammered on about just the one point for 250 pages, rather took excursions onto the tangents that this issue entails.
I would recommend this book to young adults especially as they are more likely to reveal themselves online a lot, maybe without out giving it the thought it deserves, but really there is something here for anyone that has an interest in what's going in the world and is concerned that maybe their world view is just being reinforced to them. And I wonder to what extent this might have been an issue in the 2012 US presidential election, where the Republican Party seemed so entirely certain they were winning in a land slide. Various commentators were indicating they were in "a bubble" and deluding themselves, but I wonder to what extent the Internet was a source of the illusion.