Social Networks and the offline ‘Filter Bubble’

In the book the Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser argues that the internet is becoming more personalised. Some of this makes sense as the Internet is vast and we need ways to make it more relevant to us. However he argues that the new personalisation filters are changing things without us knowing and they are focused on making money. Websites increasingly need clicks to justify investment in them and they are going to show us whatever articles, search results, ads, or data they can to get those clicks. He contends this is dangerous, as there are issues within public policy we might need to see, but might never click on, such as more unfashionable news, for example from the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. We also tend to get fed only information that reinforces our own views once we are inside, what he goes on to describe as a ‘filter bubble’. He argues that this poses significant problems for democracy and civic engagement.

Journalist Will Heaven writes about the story of how Eli Pariser came to write the book:

Eli Pariser was looking at Facebook one day when he noticed something peculiar. On his news feed, where he usually enjoyed reading through his friends’ comments and links, there was something missing. “I’ve always gone out of my way to meet conservatives,” says Pariser, a liberal tech entrepreneur from New York. “So I was kind of surprised when I noticed that the conservatives had disappeared from my Facebook feed.”

Facebook had quietly scrubbed the feed clean of anything Right-wing – nothing Republican, nothing anti-Obama, was getting through. So what was going on?

“It turns out,” says Pariser, “that Facebook was looking at which links I clicked on. And it noticed that I was clicking more on my liberal friends’ links than on my conservative friends’ links. And without consulting me about it, it had edited them out. They disappeared.”

In other words, Facebook decided that Pariser’s conservative friends weren’t relevant. It didn’t matter that he liked to hear their point of view occasionally; because he clicked on their links less frequently, they had been exiled from his online world.

Having heard the case made, the first question to ask is whether this is really a new thing? Years ago families and communities were, for example, much more tribal about their politics. These things were even talked about at home. Just as you are may find a person with religious views whose parents shared the same religion, then it used to be the case that political views were in the past so much more ingrained into young people through family influence. In addition how many friends do we actually choose who are completely dissimilar from us, when we quite naturally tend to seek points in common?

In other words there have always been filter bubbles influenced by a combination of our social networks, our local social capital and the prevalent values within our community. Some of these differing offline filter bubbles are very narrow and insular and comprise bonded social capital and some are much more open to new ideas and experiences and have much more bridging social capital. Indeed the biggest challenge when it comes to these offline filter bubbles nowadays are those social networks that may reinforce poor health outcomes as Nicholas Christakis has documented in his book Connected?

Perhaps for short a while with the start of the internet, these structures existed far less as initial internet networks developed from a lot of random connections, but as the network matured, a whole range of filters will have developed, just as people sign up to offline mailing preference services to reduce the amount of unsolicited mail they receive and often choose people relatively similar to themselves to establish long-term friendships with. With the audit trails of the online world it is much easier to measure and record online filter bubbles, however we also need to understand their role in the offline world too!

Perhaps it is some people with certain values – perhaps inner directed – that are also most concerned about the issue? Those with safety and security needs and values may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information in front of them and actually prefer the narrowing down that filters provide. Others who are more outer directed will think this issue is not important and that they already have the wide choice they need through the click of a mouse.

Eli Pariser has raised some important points that should certainly be debated; especially from a personal privacy perspective and triggering research into the offline filter bubble too; but we should not see this as a new phenomenon or even something that everyone will be shocked by.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

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