Not exactly hard hitting stuff. But my News Feed looks like this because I am an angsty millennial nostalgic about the 90’s, who happens to think both cats and Mindy Kaling are very funny. Facebook knows this about me because I tend to interact with content that reflects that. And so Facebook, much to my delight, continues to make sure that I see every Buzzfeed listicle and every cat video. But at what cost?
This cycle — Facebook promoting content based on things I like, often at the expense of introducing something that challenges things that I like — is called the “filter bubble.” This bubble applies to almost everything on the Internet, because social media and Google alike “personalize” results based on your personal information. Internet activist Eli Pariser, who coined the term and wrote a book of the same name, argues that while the Internet seems to widen our exposure, increasing personalization effectively limits exposure and traps you in a bubble.
Why should you care?
In his latest blog post, Pariser explains why filter bubbles pose a problem:
Here’s the challenge: as more and more people discover news and content through Facebook-like personalized feeds, the stuff that really matters falls out of the picture. In the Darwinian environment of the hyper-relevant news feed, content about issues like homelessness or climate change can’t compete with goofy viral videos, celebrity news, and kittens. The public sphere falls out of view. And that matters, because while we can lose sight of our common problems, they don’t lose sight of us.
What can you do?
The best way to combat a filter bubble is to simply be aware it exists. Once you know where the invisible barriers to information lie, you can make conscious decisions to bypass them.
Use Search plus Your World. One of the most alarming concerns in Pariser’s book is the idea that Google search results, personalized by design, has the effect of sheltering you from information that falls outside of your typical interests. This means that during a national election, be wary of Googling candidates, because you can’t rely on Google to display results in an intellectually honest, fair, or bipartisan manner. Instead, you can expect to mainly get results that affirm your existing political beliefs, not challenge them.
This changed last year when Google introduced Search plus Your World, which gives you the option of searching with no personalization. To avoid being filter bubbled the next time you search, click the world icon at the upper right hand corner of your search page.
Don’t rely on Facebook for news. But you already knew that, right?