So, we’ve just had a General Election here in the UK. I keep my party political views to my Twitter stream but general politics and personal principles will always be part of the mix here so I want to share two quotes about how the internet affects our view of the world, how the filtering mechanisms behind your Google search results and Facebook news feed give you a distorted view of what the rest of the world thinks. The result of our election was a surprise to many and part of that is to do with voters giving false answers to pollsters in the run up to it. But part of the shock was the contrast between living in personal filter bubbles surrounded by like-minded friends and followers and then being confronted with the differing opinions of the world outside your bubble. That experience will increasingly apply to you whatever your own personal political affiliation.
Here’s an explanation of what the ‘filter bubble’ means for your Google searches:
‘Starting that morning [04DEC2009], Google would use fifty-seven signals – everything from where you were logging in from to what browser you were using to what you had searched for before – to make guesses about who you were and what kinds of sites you’d like. Even if you were logged out it would customize it’s results, showing you the pages you were most likely to click on.
It’s not hard to see the difference in action. In the spring of 2010, while the remains of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig were spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I asked two friends to search for the term “BP.” They’re pretty similar – educated white left-leaning women who live in the Northeast. But the results they saw were quite different. One of my friends saw investment information about BP. The other saw news. For one, the first page of results contained links about the oil spill; for the other, there was nothing about it except for a promotional ad for BP.
Even the number of results returned by Google differed – about 180 million results for one friend and 139 million for the other.’
And here’s what it means for your social media streams and democracy:
‘For a time, it seemed that the Internet was going to entirely redemocratize society. Bloggers and citizen journalists would single-handedly rebuild the public media. Politicians would be able to run only with a broad base of support from small, everyday donors. Local governments would become more transparent and accountable to their citizens. And yet the era of civic connection I dreamed about hasn’t come. Democracy requires a reliance of shared facts; instead we’re being offered parallel but separate universes.
My sense of unease crystallized when I noticed that my conservative friends had disappeared from my Facebook page. Politically, I lean to the left, but I like to hear what conservatives are thinking, and I’ve gone out of my way to befriend a few and add them as Facebook connections. I wanted to see what links they’d post, read their comments, and learn a bit from them.
But their links never turned up in my Top News feed. Facebook was apparently doing the math and noticing that I was still clicking my progressive friends’ links more than my conservative friends’ – and links to the latest Lady Gaga videos more than either. So no more conservative links for me.’
Both quotes taken from the interesting The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You by Eli Pariser (published in 2011 by Penguin) which I read in April.