Technology

The boy in the (filter) bubble

Richard Parker /

Did you know you might be living in a ‘filter bubble’ — that the information you consume online may be tailored to you without you knowing it?

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It’s the reason you see more posts about politics than fashion on your Facebook news feed, and why two people can get very different Google results when searching for the exact same thing.

Facebook and Google do this in slightly different ways.

Google (and a host of other search engines) tailors search results to you via algorithmic curation. This essentially amounts to collecting personal information, which can include (but isn’t limited to) your location, what you click on and which browser you’re using, and then deciding (without consulting you) what sort of content you should see.

The news you consume via social media such as Facebook, on the other hand, is both algorithmically curated (in that Facebook doesn’t show you posts from every friend and every brand in your news feed) and ‘socially curated’. ‘Social curation’ just means the news you receive comes through a bunch of people, media outlets and brands that you ‘like’, ‘follow’ or whatever else on social media. And of course you are more likely to follow people you in some way agree with. If, say, you’re a left-leaning Sydneysider for example, you’re more likely to follow the Sydney Morning Herald and therefore to read left-leaning opinion pieces.

The phenomenon was first identified by Eli Pariser, and he wants to pop the bubble.

He says we should be concerned. While the subject matter you see is dependent on who you are and what you do, “you don’t decide what gets in; and, more importantly, you don’t actually see what gets edited out”.

A political and internet activist, Pariser gave a thought-provoking TED talk a while back on filter bubbles and the dangers they pose. It’s definitely worth a watch.

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Pariser says there’s an ongoing war between our future, aspirational selves and our more impulsive, present selves. We all want to be concerned global citizens yet we can’t resist the urge to read about the latest Lindsay Lohan scandal first. There’s an imbalance in the information we’re absorbing — and these online filters (based mainly on the first thing you click on) are only making it worse.

Once upon a time, the rules of broadcast meant there were people responsible for deciding the kind of information we received. When the internet came along it looked like they would be out of a job; no longer would the news and entertainment we received be subject to the decisions of an editor at a big TV corporation or a newspaper publisher. The web would provide us with the freedom to view the content WE wanted. But what actually happened was, in Pariser’s words, “more a passing of the torch; from human gatekeepers to algorithmic ones”.

The result has been a sort of ‘survival of the fittest’ scenario, in which content that challenges us, makes us uncomfortable or presents someone else’s point of view has become extinct, replaced instead by FAIL videos, vapid celebrity gossip and other content that just soothes us and tells us that we’re normal, that we fit in.

All this is pretty well documented, and has been for a couple of years. So are we doomed to a life void of any and all meaning? Not if Pariser has anything to say about it.

Along with Peter Koechley (former editor at The Onion), Pariser came up with a radical idea to bring the best online content (that would otherwise be edited out) to you. Their vehicle? Upworthy, a social media outfit with a mission. The New York Times calls it “serious news built for a spreadable age”.

Upworthy’s lofty ideals can be concentrated into one main goal: to get stuff that matters into the information stream. It is doing this by saturating social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest with “awesome, meaningful [and] visual things to share”.

So why not close down that LOLcats tab and click on something worthwhile? You might be surprised what’s out there.

Richard Parker is the head of digital at strategic content agency Edge, where he has experience working with leading brands including Woolworths, St George and Foxtel. He previously spent 12 years in the UK, first at Story Worldwide then as the co-owner and strategic director of marketing agency Better Things.

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