Module 1: Filter Bubbles, How to Pop 'Em All, Why You Should Care

Module Objectives:

  1. Learn what a filter bubble is and how they are created.

  2. Reflect on and discuss the consequences of filter bubbles.

  3. Pop your own filter bubble.

Note: all links are required reading/watching unless otherwise noted. 

trapped-in-a-filter-bubble.jpg

What is a filter bubble?

Techopedia defines "filter bubble" as "the intellectual isolation that can occur when websites make use of algorithms to selectively assume the information a user would want to see, and then give information to the user according to this assumption. Websites make these assumptions based on the information related to the user, such as former click behavior, browsing history, search history and location. For that reason, the websites are more likely to present only information that will abide by the user's past activity. A filter bubble, therefore, can cause users to get significantly less contact with contradicting viewpoints, causing the user to become intellectually isolated."

You may need to read that a time or two for it to sink in. While the idea is settling in, watch this TED Talk by Eli Pariser, the person who actually coined the term:

Go back and read the definition paragraph. Does it make sense now?

Everyone has their own, unique filter bubble, and it develops and strengthens over time. Every time you execute a search on a search engine or post to Facebook or use a web browser, various websites make note. The algorithms filter the parts of the internet you, and others, see. You can imagine that being exposed only to a very small part of the world wide web can severely limit your worldview. Eli Pariser wrote a very short article highlighting web inventor Tim Berners-Lee's concerns: http://web.archive.org/web/20150518111137/http://www.thefilterbubble.com/web-inventor-tim-berners-lee-weighs-in-theres-danger-in-the-filter-bubble

Andreas Ekström points out a some moral implications and opportunities for bias in this TED Talk:

How do those examples Ekström shares make you feel? Should technology companies be our moral compass? Is there a way of stopping it?

Consequences, or Why You Should Care

The number of consequences of the existence of filter bubbles is almost infinite. Take a moment and think about how your bubble may be changing what you see online. Go back up to the top and read the definition and see what jumps out at you. Now that you have a better working understanding of what "filter bubble" refers to, what parts of the description worry you the most?

For me, "the intellectual isolation" is the scariest bit. Think about that and who that could apply to. Definitely everyday internet users, but also scientists and researchers, students, politicians, voters, journalists, your doctor.

The Guardian worries about the effect on journalism and wrote about it recently: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/12/how-technology-disrupted-the-truth (also available as an audio podcast: https://www.theguardian.com/news/audio/2016/jul/22/how-technology-disrupted-the-truth-podcast).

Could this intellectual isolation be a part of why American politics has felt so divided (optional reading) and partisan recently? Asked another way, does your Facebook feed look very similar from top to bottom? Does it appear that all of your friends think the same way as you? Is that something you like or don't like? Check out the Wall Street Journal's interactive tool that explores who sees what on Facebook: http://graphics.wsj.com/blue-feed-red-feed/ and read Medium's The "Other Side" is Not Dumb: https://medium.com/@SeanBlanda/the-other-side-is-not-dumb-2670c1294063#.bpz0xg8kz 

Finally, The New York Public Library recently wrote a blog post about this very subject that's worth reading: https://www.nypl.org/blog/2016/07/28/are-you-getting-whole-story

Popping Your Filter Bubble

After naming "the filter bubble" and writing a book about it, Tim Pariser also put together a list of "10 Ways to Pop Your Filter Bubble." Read it via archive.org: http://web.archive.org/web/20150317092532/http://www.thefilterbubble.com/10-things-you-can-do

Next, consider the steps Pariser lists. Choose to implement as many as you would like. Keep in mind that if you complete all of them, you may find that you have to work a little bit harder online (like remember your own passwords). It's up to you to make your own choices (life lesson, by the way).

Further (Optional) Reading & Viewing

Questions to Consider:

  1. In the definition of "filter bubble" above, what strikes you most?

  2. What are some positive results of filter bubbles?

  3. Should technology companies be our moral compass? If not, is there a way of stopping it?

  4. Think about what you know about filter bubbles and how they might affect a specific group of people (like journalists or scientists or your classmates). Does that group have an ethical obligation to try to research "outside" their bubble? What about tech companies -- do they have an obligation to build in work-arounds?

  5. Did you go through all 10 steps to pop your own filter bubble? Why or why not? If you didn't, at what point did you stop and why? If you did some or all of them, what differeneces (if any) do you see in your browsing and searching experience?


Module 2: Privacy and Information Professionals