“Personalization is based on a bargain. In exchange for the service of filtering, you hand large companies an enormous amount of data about your daily life–much of which you might not trust your friends with.”
– Eli Pariser
Popular Science became a lovable genre in the age of our parents as enough people obtained an education which enabled them to understand and appreciate rudimentary science. Researchers and scientists moved beyond the writing of research papers and journal articles to books which could make for bedside or coffee table reading. The content could range from genetics to space travel. Then a few years from that we had business school professors and financiers explaining to us how the wheels of the world’s fiscal machines move. Now is the time for the latest in technology and society. The internet although not a very recent invention is now at a stage that people can begin to understand the mechanics behind it. What does each Facebook like translate to? And who knows what about me? are questions even those who don’t know what WWW stands for, are beginning to ask. The Filter Bubble caters to the crowd asking such questions.
Eli Pariser is the CEO of UpWorthy. The mother of all those sites which flood your social walls with messages and videos like : ” This man did so and so and what happened next will melt your heart or have you crying bucket loads or doing something equivalent to a sentimental tsunami.” He is also the board president of MoveOn.org and a co-founder of Avaaz.org. An Internet activist, Pariser is the author of The Filter Bubble which is the subject of this post. This work is based on the premise that you and I have our view of the internet and through it the world, warped by various techniques social media and search engines use to personalize our experience. The greater your use of this world wide network via an online profile, the greater is the information available about you as an input to agencies which can determine what content to show you.
The concept when restated is not a very unique one today, but it is something which we seldom think about. The author states as an example : the different search results for the same term for a conservative and a liberal. He says that when you search for the term BP depending upon your browsing history, search history and likes/shares on the associated social network of the search engine, you are likely to either see results about an oil spill or share prices. There are about 2.405 billion [Don’t know the legitimacy of this claim] internet users today ( Ref : InternetWorldStats), that seems like enough incentive for organizations to mine this world wide web for user information. Age old practices of door to door surveys and mailer forms have been replaced by online forms. It however is much easier to understand your demographic by studying their online presence and social data. What kind of singers and music they like, movies they watch and restaurants they eat at can help the producers of consumer goods decide on Ad placement, who to hire as a brand ambassador and their product statement. This is advantageous for the consumer as well for now we have a more direct say in things we consume.
Personalization is in itself a boon, filtering out those unwanted posts about kittens from your social wall and highlighting those about RPGs can overall enhance the user experience. If a user is faced with only that content to which he relates to or is more likely to “like” then he is also likely to continue using that particular social network over others. This makes for a strong selling point for a social network to a brand looking to expand its social presence. But the fear as per the author is here that variety which was rightly proclaimed as the spice of life, might just fizzle out in the process. With only agreeable content popping up there is fear of the users of the web becoming intellectually and politically dormant. The barrage of #Namo and #AAP posts this election in India is testament to that very fact, we all saw support for one and disdain for another. There were very few devil’s advocates around and if they had to anything to say, it is likely that their posts got skipped from your feed.
Another interesting point which the book brings up is the sale of the data about you by large data management firms which you have not heard of. Acxiom undergoes a lot of bashing by the author for its role in the peddling of personal data ( obtained by consent generally ) and helping firms maintain an online image. Search results and page ranks are the equivalent of article placement in a newspaper. In years gone by when certain news was considered sensitive it was put on the 5th or 6th page in an insignificant space. Now the search rank has to be adjusted and your average netizen is more than likely to skip that content.
The Filter Bubble is an enjoyable, informative and easy to relate to read. Don’t expect it to be overly technical, it wasn’t personalized for you. One major brownie point for the book is that it doesn’t venture deeply into the realm of conspiracy and paranoia, which is easy to do given the subject. The premise that filtering of data on the basis of the perceived ideology of the user being a bad idea to me is debatable. Our world view, our daily conversations and our morality is all a function of the company we keep. It is a product of the ideas, people, books, movies, news and media that we choose to surround ourselves with. While it is an explicit choice in normal life, on the internet it becomes an implicit one.
Perhaps the bone of contention should be not whether Filtering is bad or not but how efficient is the filtering mechanism?
For those who’d like something more detailed :