All About Filter Bubbles

by Jocelyn D. Stilwell

Two weeks ago, I didn’t know what a filter bubble was. Last week, I was in a Filter Bubble focused filter bubble. Here is what happened: Two of my Facebook friends posted a link to the same video. These were two friends who don’t know each other, and who I know from totally different parts of my life: one was a good friend in high school, and is now a journalist; the other is a friend of my husband, and is an IT guy. This kind of link overlap happens very rarely on my Facebook account, and has never happened with these two friends before. And this information is relevant because of the content of the link they were sharing. It was Eli Pariser’s TED presentation on Filter Bubbles – all about the dangers of getting your news and information from websites that filter information to your personal tastes.

I was driving to our Sacramento office the next day, and information on this subject popped up again. Pariser was on the local NPR station’s “KQED Forum” program. As they were talking, someone mentioned that his talk kept showing up in her news feed and he said:

“It sounds like you’re in a Filter Bubble filter bubble.”

So I know I’m not alone. And like the opposite of irony, my exposure to the concept is an example of the concept. I know a lot of people who care about information dissemination, and I care about it too, so interactive abyss of the internet throws me information on it, as do my news sources, and here I am passing it on to you, in case we’re not in the same bubble.

Here are the things that I’ve taken away from the talk and interview: Pariser says that our online lives tend to reflect our own beliefs back at us. That makes it hard to break out of your own point of view: the personalization of the web obscures facts you should know about, masking them with your social circles’ opinions. Pariser’s analysis of this in his TED talk and the NPR interview focuses on social awareness and the impact on voter opinions and citizenship, as you’d expect from one of the founders of MoveOn.Org. I wonder how it impacts our lives as librarians.

Pariser further observes that being aware of this problem is one step towards solving it, which isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Search engines and social media companies don’t have disclaimers to let you know they’re filtering and personalizing the information you see. As a result, Pariser is encouraging online companies to rethink their personalized algorithms and provide either an opt-out option or an “unsuggester,” tools that would let the user know his or her content is being edited in the first place, and provide them with tools to work around that. He’s right that we don’t always know the degree to which information is personalized online. For example, I knew my Facebook results have been altered and edited based on what I click on. But I had no idea that Google has been personalizing web search results.
What does this mean to law librarians? Here are a few of my thoughts. I think that the personalization is good in our professional lives – for the most part. And I think that we’re adding accuracy to our patrons searches with our good search techniques and by clicking on factual and good sources (or we should be). Google knows a lot about my search patterns, because I keep my to-do list in Gmail’s tasks application, and I have it open all day. You’re welcome, Google. I assume that anyone searching from my IP address, and possibly anyone searching from any location of my firm, has had their results influenced by my search patterns as well. As a librarian, I usually go for the best and most authoritative site when searching for information, and I’m sure that the document search pages for various superior courts have been given unnatural significance for our firm’s network thanks in large part to my unwitting efforts.

However, if I happen to habitually click on the wrong thing when using Google, it has ripple effects that I had no idea about. And frankly, I’m not sure how much my home-based searching might overlap with and influence other people’s work searches (it seems pretty unlikely, come to think of it – we don’t do legal work for “Dancing with the Stars”). Another downside to personalized searching relates to trying to get outside of your own point of view. For example, if an attorney is trying to find information on a subject from the Plaintiff point of view if at a Defense firm, and vice-versa, personalized searching may bury the very information they’re looking for.

And going back to Pariser’s main point – the negative impact of filter bubbles on news searching. News searching is a big part of my work life, and I have no idea how personalization is affecting my news searching. As an information professional, I tend to believe that news sources are not as rich or as deep as they used to be, even ten years ago. The staff cuts at traditional print publishers haven’t been balanced out by free online sources. Given the shrinking number of news outlets, finding and reading ALL the articles on any given thing is a much less daunting task than it once was, so depending on the depth of coverage in your search area, filter bubbles may not be an issue.

Overall, if I had the option to opt-out of personalization, I probably wouldn’t use it at work.

Do any of you have thoughts on how the filter bubble effects libraries and librarians? Maybe you have observations about the down-stream effects of this kind of web searching? In a way, it reminds me of something that happened when I was hosting a WestlawNext orientation with our firm rep – we got a result that wasn’t relevant, and an attorney asked how to avoid it. After a few minutes of “well, you don’t click into it, you have enough information on the main page to make that decision” from our WestlawNext rep, I ended up reminding the room that no matter how much computers can help us “You are always going to be smarter than the software.” And you are – but the software is getting better at telling you what you like to hear.

The real challenge may be keeping our perspective and knowing when to look outside of our filter bubbles for a fresh point of view. This skill is necessary to make sure our future selves are smarter and better informed than our current selves – a goal I think we all share.

1 Response to “All About Filter Bubbles”

  1. 1 Andrew Powell June 3, 2011 at 3:53 am

    As long as we are in control of the filters, it’s fine. In this Connected Age we need to develop personal ways of handling information overload — it’s a required skill. When we hand it off to others or automation, we’re letting others tell us what we should be paying attention to. While that does help reduce the tsunami of info washing over us at any given moment, it gives us a very narrow view, especially when there are times we need to see the big picture and greater context. Recommendations, sure, but letting a service curate everything for me? No thanks. I still enjoy the serendipity of something unexpected.

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May 2011

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