The Filter Bubble’s Filter

Just came across a link to a TED talk by Eli Pariser in support of his new book – The Filter Bubble.

From watching the video, the argument is interesting.  In short, he claims that the big gateway sites – Google, Facebook, etc. are increasingly using algorithms to tailor information to their viewers, only showing them what they want to see and ‘hiding’ from them all other information, be it boring or unpleasant or disquieting or what-have-you.  Ultimately, he claims, this threatens the dream of the Internet as the great connector.  These algorithms, he claims, are in the same seat as the Newspaper editors of the 20’s, and need to be programmed to include the lessons learned from those times – editorial balance, etc.

From this short presentation, though, it looks to me like he does a lot of his own filtering of facts in order to set up this equivalence between the newspaper editors of the ’20s and the algorithms of today.  The biggest difference is that in the 20s, most people saw exactly 1 newspaper, and that’s how they got their picture of the world.  On the web, you choose your sources of info.  Most people have many, and everyone can have as many as they like.

The Internet is an information marketplace and a filter marketplace.  There are any number of different kinds of filters – each person decides which ones they use, and the market as a whole decides which ones become popular.  Moreover – even the big ‘fitlerers’ that he fingers – Google and Facebook – don’t block out any information.  You want to see what your conservative friends are up to?  Click on their pages.  Facebook’s response?  It’ll show you more about them.  Want to learn about any topic at all in Google?  Search for it.  Nothing’s hidden.

The argument here boils down to a claim that lazy people who aren’t interested should be given a default mix that has broader boundaries.  Yet, there’s no reason to claim that once a particular website / filter / presentation of information becomes popular it suddenly has to change it’s magic-mix that made it popular in order to make sure people get a a balanced picture.  If people want a balanced picture there is no barrier to them getting it, besides habit.  Why does any particular website have to be paternalistic about what info it shows its users?  “They want Justin Beiber, but we’ll give them Greek Philosophy.”  It’s silly.

Should a website make it’s filter explicit and adjustable?  If people want it, then there will be websites that do.  All the rules of open markets apply.