You and your “filter bubble,” and the impact on society

This is a fascinating little spoken essay over at TED, and as the site boasts, is indeed an “idea worth spreading.” Actually, a bunch of ideas — ideas and observations I’ve made before — although neatly tied together.

Here are some of the things that it discusses:

  • The idea of the personal “filter bubble,” which is unique to you and yet — and this is critical — not chosen by you. It’s chosen by the algorithms with which you are interacting, based on information that has been gathered about you. I’m not just talking about the obvious ads you see. I’m talking about — to use the example Eli Pariser uses in the video — if you Google “Egypt,” you don’t get the same information that someone else gets when they Google “Egypt.” It’s like you’re in parallel universes.
  • That these algorithms are the things replacing editors like me — the people who made a profession out of filtering the vast amounts of information that is available into something digestible and understandable to a person in the real world with only one set of eyes and 24 hours in the day.
  • That instead of empowering you, though — which is the myth of the Internet, that regular folks have been all liberated from us wicked, manipulating editors controlling what they see and what is published — this new, impersonal mechanism is manipulating you, and doing it in isolation, and in a way that you are unlikely to notice. (As I type that, I start to think more and more of “The Matrix.”) Rather than being more connected to the world, it’s like you are being fed a personalized information flow in your own little solitary confinement cell.
  • There is, in other words, a dark side to the my-this and my-that way that websites are often marketed to you. I’ve always had a visceral, negative response to that stuff, but I always thought it was because of my communitarianism. And the fact that it spelled the death of the mass media in which I made my living, which depended upon a notion of common space, and common concerns. This has given me another reason to be bugged by it.
  • To explore that isolation thing further… back in the 80s, we MSM journalists decried the plethora of specialty magazines that were increasingly popular. People were more and more subscribing to “Left-Handed Gay Bicyclist Journal” rather than publications based in the notion that we’re all in a society together. The Web really exacerbated that tendency. (But that’s not what did in the newspaper industry. What did it in was the business side of that — the fact that businesses started marketing directly to customers and potential customers directly, first through direct mail, then through those little plastic tags on your keychain, then through the Web. That shut out mass media, media aimed at whole communities.) The reason, we kept telling people, that YOU should care was that representative democracy depended upon a sense of shared interests, or at least shared sources of information, to some extent. But at least we thought people were freely choosing this. The fascinating thing about the “filter bubble” is how software is choosing it for you, largely without your full realization.
  • This is like 1915 again. Early in the last century, as people started realizing how important newspapers were to democracy itself, you started to see the development of certain ethics about objectivity and fairness, etc. There started to be an assumption of SOME responsibility by editors, rather than just bulling along being shills for this or that political movement — which is what newspapers had been since the founding of the republic. As imperfect as that system of safeguards was, it was at least something. Now we don’t have it. The Internet is the Wild West. If democracy is to be well served, some sorts of standards also need to emerge on the Web.

Something he doesn’t directly address but I will. What’s going on right now — in a tiny way on this blog, in lots of other ways in thousands of other places — is that people are trying to figure out the new business model for news on the state and local level. The old model has collapsed, but there’s still a strong demand for the information and commentary — as strong as ever. The thing is, the old business model wasn’t related to that demand — newspapers were paid for by advertisers, not readers. I believe in markets enough that I believe a new model for paying for newsgathering in order to meet that demand will emerge. But will it be one that supports an informed electorate, the kind upon which a liberal representative democracy depends?

And by the way, this is not about “that bad Internet.” The message is better summed up in his conclusion:

We really need the internet to be that thing that we all dreamed of it being… and it’s not going to do that, if it leaves us all isolated, in a web of one.

Anyway, that’s enough for me. Y’all are all empowered and everything now. Watch it yourself.

23 thoughts on “You and your “filter bubble,” and the impact on society

  1. Nick Nielsen

    “Good stuff is good stuff.”

    Regardless of the source.

    The one human behavior I will probably never understand is the tendency (need?) for people to dismiss information out of hand, simply because of the source.

  2. Tom Fillinger

    Brad, I recently cancelled my subscription to Runner’s World magazine after decades of receiving that publicaiton. Why? In 128 pages it had 40+ pages of advertising.

    It is my contention that news papers failed/are failing because they: A. tried to make the news rather than reporting it and B. tried to sell me tons of crap called advertising instead of delivering the news.

    Years ago I challenged Marshall Shelley (Leadership Journal) to bag the advertisments and raise the price of the Journal so that it was published without all the ads. He said they could not exist without the ads. Now they cannot exist with them either. I subscribed for the Journal content not the ads. I long since cancelled my subscription to The State – same issue. I subscribed to the paper for the news not the ads. Now they are hoisted on their own petard.

  3. Steve Gordy

    As noted, we think we’re controlling the software; in truth, the software is controlling us. One unanticipated consequence of being able to refine one’s tastes to the point that they’re perfectly unpredictable is that we lose the ability to appreciate much of what doesn’t fit within the boundaries of our predictable little worlds.

  4. bud

    This is kind of related to something that has always bugged me. That’s the way software companies, especially Microsoft, presume to know what you want to do. They have all these “themes” in software like Powerpoint that just leave me cold. All that stuff does for me is serve as an extra layer of background noise to filter out so I can do what I really want to do. Then there’s the My Documents default. I have never put anything in My Documents or My Photos or anything else that Microsoft sets up for me. I want to make my own decisions about what to name the folder I put stuff in. But sometimes the software will automatically put stuff in a folder that presumably makes perfectly good logical sense to the person who wrote the software. And then I can never find it.

  5. Doug Ross

    An analogy I would use for your blog is a virtual McGlaughin Group with you in the center chair guiding the topics, hectoring over the content, and setting the tone. And, in the end, having the final say (“Wrong!”).

    To me it’s a much better forum than the editorial pages were/are. On the printed page, the editor still has significant control over what is presented and can establish a style/tone/perspective that the uninformed reader may assume is the majority opinion.

    The filtered web is not much different for the consumer than the filtered message they get from Fox or MSNBC. Also, in order to get that filtered content, the user must enable cookies or other tracking software. I just tried entering Egpyt in Google on two different computers (one a remote system with a different user profile) just like the screenshot above shows. Same result for both.

  6. Brad

    And Tom…

    I don’t even know what the “making news” thing means. But as for your other point…

    It always kind of startles me when I hear that complaint. You DO know that the advertising is what paid for the newspaper, right? It certainly wasn’t the readers. It’s been years since I’ve looked at a newspaper’s numbers and worked it out, but I seem to recall circulation revenue being something like 12 percent or so of total. And readers had a fit when their subscription costs went up by even the tiniest fraction, so actually charging them what it cost to produce a newspaper was out of the question.

    Besides, there was no need to, as long as all that advertising money flowed in so easily. From a business standpoint, the main purpose of readers was that the more you had, the higher rates you could charge for advertising. One of the reasons that publishers started throwing readers away by consolidating their circulation areas — something I fought hard, but eventually unsuccessfully — was that in recent years, advertisers made it clear they only wanted readers in the immediate, core area.

    For news and editorial people, it was about readers. For the people who ran the business, it was about ads. Without them, you couldn’t pay news and editorial people, or anyone else. And as the ads went away, so did the newspaper business.

    Anyway, you’re right to complain about the diminished amount of content you wanted. But you have to realize that the only way for there to have been MORE space for such content would have been to have more ads, not fewer.

  7. Brad

    Also, to elaborate…

    The ads readers complain about the most are the inserts — those things that fall out of the paper when you pick it up.

    Well, rest assured that newspapers resisted them as long as they could.

    Back when I was first a senior editor at a paper and therefore attended regular meetings with managers from other divisions — when I was actually quite young, back in the early 80s — I would hear the ad director complain mightily about customers turning more and more away from ROP ads to inserts. (ROP, or run-of-press, ads are the ones on the regular pages of the paper, amid the news and editorial content.) Not only did the paper make more money off of ROP, but there was a strategic reason to resist inserts.

    This was the very beginning of the shift in retail advertising that is closely related to what Eli Pariser is talking about in the video — the move away from conventional mass advertising to targeting individual customers.

    Only back then it wasn’t the Web. It was direct mail. If an advertiser put his pitch in an insert he could deliver by mail just as easily as distributing it in the newspaper. Which was bad news for the business, strategically. So it was to be discouraged.

    But eventually, advertising got so scarce that publishers grew less picky, and were grateful to have the inserts. They were better than nothing, at least in the short term when you were trying to make your budget…

    In the early 80s, the business was flush enough to enable ad directors to turn up their noses at certain kinds of business. By the time they canned me, not so much…

  8. Brad

    And if you see ANY kind of new magazine on a stand, the chances are about 99.999 out of 100 that it exists purely as a means to sell advertising.

    Once, people started literary reviews or journals devoted to inquiry or politics or whatever, and they often launched the careers of great writers. The point was the editorial content. Now, a business sees some potential ad money on the table, and creates a pub to go after that money. Generally there is a tiny fig leaf of “editorial” fluff tucked in among the ads, but the point is the ads.

  9. bud

    I understand the need for ads and how they are the lifeblood of any kind of medieum (TV, Radio and even movies) but it seems as though the ads are become much more prevelant. It’s difficult to even watch television now because of the ads. And now we have commercials in a movie that we just paid $10 to see. That didn’t used to be the case. Has anyone done a study to actually count the number of advertisements we’re exposed to on a daily basis compared to say 1965? I bet it’s at least triple.

  10. Tom Fillinger


    I appreciate your extensive repsone and I know that this is your area of expertise. You lived the very issues we are addressing, and I might add – painful so.

    Bud, I ‘watch’ the ball game now on “mute”. When there is something worth seeing or a bit exciting I turn up the sound for a few seconds.

  11. bfkkb

    Making news is as irritating as it gets. Most recently, trying to predict what will happen with, say, oh just about anything: Weather, politics, Osama, Obama and on and on ad nauseam. There is no such thing as news any more since we have to absorb it while “reporters” sit on couches and read tweets during the inane analyses of the latest and greatest. Today it was Arnold S. Who gives a crap? He was a womanizer way back when (although with all those steroids, it’s a wonder he could even manage to do anything with a woman) and he’s still a womanizer. That’s NOT NEWS! (yes, I’m screaming.)

  12. bud

    There was certainly ample evidence of Arnold’s womanizing as a young man. Most people assumed he had outgrown that. Apparently not. Sad.

  13. Ralph Hightower

    When I was a paper carrier in high school, I hated the inserts. The papers and ads would come in separate bundles and I had to insert the ads before delivering.

  14. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    and now the State’s ROP ads are so bottom-of-the-barrel– full page ads for charlatan-type chiropractors, “Amish” fireplaces and evaporative coolers–that we can only call for during our region’s special time–because we live in the “scorcher” zone– and pharmaceutical ads….telegraphs who they think the market is– What’s next, Nigerian email scams? I feel kind of embarrassed subscribing….

  15. Steven Davis

    Kathryn the one way to resolve your disgust is to hit them in the pocketbook and cancel your subscription. I did years ago and don’t regret it one bit. I heard from a neighbor the other day who has a “weekend” subscription, that the weekend at The State starts on a Thursday.

  16. Steven Davis

    “Early in the last century, as people started realizing how important newspapers were to democracy itself, you started to see the development of certain ethics about objectivity and fairness, etc. There started to be an assumption of SOME responsibility by editors, rather than just bulling along being shills for this or that political movement — which is what newspapers had been since the founding of the republic. ”

    Wow… you really thought a lot of yourself back then didn’t you.

    Newspapers push their agenda and what sells newspapers. In that order.

  17. Steven Davis

    Brad is sounding more and more like a newspaper version of Al Bundy, “why back in my day…” when he’s talking about high school football. It’s called “the past” for a reason.

  18. bud

    Steven, Brad has devoted a great deal of his adult life to the newspaper business and it’s natural that he would show them a bit of loyalty. So let’s not get to hard on Brad specifically.

    On the other hand The State newspaper and other papers too are fair game. The Sunday paper now has consolidated the opinion section into a 2 page spread in section A, the same as the weekday editions. (At least that’s better than Saturday which lost opinion alltogether). Even the sports section seems less newsworthy.

    The standard explaination is that ad revenue is down, hence costs have to be cut. Yet the inserts seem to grow bigger and more intrusive with each passing day. I’ll continue to subscribe to The State mostly for the obituaries and the funnies. But for most other news events, including what happens at the state house, the alternatives are more than adequate to keep fully informed.


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