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The Filter Bubble, Then And Now

by Nate St. Pierre on October 14, 2014

In 2011, Eli Pariser, “an internet activist best known as a leading light at MoveOn.org, a progressive online campaign group,” both coined the term and warned us of the danger of the filter bubble:

“Facebook shows you updates from the friends you interact with the most, filtering out people with whom you have less in common. “My sense of unease crystallised when I noticed that my conservative friends had disappeared from my Facebook page,” Mr. Pariser writes. The result is a “filter bubble”, which he defines as “a unique universe of information for each of us”, meaning that we are less likely to encounter information online that challenges our existing views or sparks serendipitous connections. “A world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there’s nothing to learn,” Mr. Pariser declares. He calls this “invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas”.”
The Economist, 2011

I happen to very much agree with his assessment. But I must say that it gives me absolute, eye-rolling glee to know that in 2012, in an attempt to “do something about it,” he created . . . erm . . . Upworthy. [cue collective groan]

Now many of you, for reasons that will be explained later, probably think that Upworthy is A Very Good Thing, and are nodding your heads heartily at his immense success with the project. And this is fair. But whatever your thoughts on the value of the site itself, let’s take another look at it through the lens of its stated goal, to counteract the effects of the filter bubble.

Here’s what a reasonably intelligent web professional (SPOILER ALERT: it was me) had to say about Upworthy last year:

Here’s the real problem with these types of sites, beyond the desensitization to clickbait headlines. At their best, they get people to share quick hits of entertaining or uplifting content, which is all well and good. But at their worst, they are heavily partisan and encourage the ever-more-dangerous trend of ignoring the nuance in complex issues in favor of driving home a particular point or making “the other side” look bad. They often attempt to fan the flames of outrage instead of encouraging a healthy dialogue.

Upworthy is by far the most frequent offender in this area. To their credit, they are overt in acknowledging that a big part of their reason for being is to push their social agenda, but just take a look at how often they do that by promoting certain examples that mock and discredit representatives of their opponents’ viewpoints (especially in their “Politics” section). Sharing awesome and meaningful stories is one thing; sharing others’ worst moments while hiding your own is another.

I wrote that last year completely unaware that its stated goal, from the creator himself, was to combat the effects of the filter bubble that was becoming such a worrisome trend online. If I were to express my reaction and my level of “I literally can’t even” in the form of LOLs, it would look like this: lololololololololololol. Also I literally can even, because hey, it’s the internet, and many things on the internet are just plain stupid.

Please understand that this is not a personal knock on Eli Pariser. I don’t know the man, and I assume he’s probably a very nice guy. Yet it remains laughable to me that Upworthy was built as a vehicle to help prevent us from living inside an echo chamber of our own narrow viewpoints.

Here’s an illustration for you: I know that many of the people who will end up reading this post will find it via Twitter. The age group of those reading will probably fall mainly in the 30-40 age group. Why? Because this is my bubble. I started on Twitter in 2009, when I was 31. Today my Twitter account is older than 99% of all users, and the network of people I connected with back then (who still form the core of my friends on the platform today) were considered the early adopters of a technology that is now ubiquitous. For those of you in this bubble with me, would you say that your Twitter experience, in terms of types of people you interact with, has changed much in the last 6 years? I would submit that it probably has not. The kind of people I talk to and the kind of conversations we have are just as familiar to me now as they were at that time.

HOWEVER…

Twitter has changed. The young people have come in. This platform is very different than it was six years ago, and yet I guarantee that the majority of people in my network (yes, friend, this means you) haven’t even noticed. Don’t believe me? Do a Twitter search for a phrase that anyone could use, regardless of age/race/religion/social status – a phrase to get an accurate sampling of current Twitter users. I’ll give you two:

it was
I want a

Look at those results. Kids kids kids kids kids, as far as the eye can see. Half of them talking in a language you probably don’t understand. That’s what Twitter is today. If you hadn’t realized it until just now, you’ve been living in your own little filter bubble.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – people self-select like this all the time. We naturally tend to gravitate towards those we are similar to, and away from those we are unlike. The trouble with our online lives is that it’s sooooo easy to reinforce these choices without even understanding what we’re doing . . . where most of our favorite platforms serve up content (and people) that you are most likely to favor, based on their knowledge of your past choices. Pretty soon this becomes the self-perpetuating cycle of sameness that Eli Pariser called out years ago.

The point of this article is simply to remind you that what you see online is not always reflective of reality, and the sense that free and open discussion or debate is taking place on our platforms is largely a mirage.

“People who use social media are finding new ways to engage politically, but there’s a big difference between political participation and deliberation. People are less likely to express opinions and to be exposed to the other side, and that’s exposure we’d like to see in a democracy.”
“How Social Media Silences Debate” – The New York Times, 2014

I see this all the time, and what’s more, I feel it. For me personally, my filter bubble online skews liberal, firstly because Twitter itself skews liberal, and secondly because a large part of my network comes from the non-profit and cause-related space, which skews the same. And I happen to be in the distinctly uncomfortable position of being right in the middle politically. I lean conservative on some topics, and liberal on others. For me, politics are pretty much a wash, and it’s very convenient that I don’t really care about them too much. However, the downside is that I always feel like I’m someone’s enemy, especially on Twitter, my platform of choice. You know all too well how quickly emotions can escalate online, and how quickly people pile on once they smell blood in the water.

I can tell you with certainty that I am not misogynist, racist, or homophobic. But I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to edit or rethink or delete or completely avoid saying certain things on the platform, not because my comments would have fallen into any of these categories, but merely because they would have used words sometimes associated with these kinds of thoughts, and I’ve had enough backlash to know that I don’t even want to risk having to deal with it. Additionally, there are so many times that I’d like to say something logical about a given situation that’s “blowing up” on Twitter, but I know that what I’d say, though valid, would go completely against the current emotional state of my network regarding the situation, and I would be ignored at best, shouted down most likely, or accused of being a hateful person at worst. And that’s just how it is on today’s internet.

I would simply ask that you try to be aware of how these things work online. It’s so easy to get caught up in the drama and emotion of what it seems “everyone is talking about,” but the truth is that it’s not everyone, and it’s not as one-sided and obvious as you think. Nothing ever is . . . especially in our personal little filter bubbles online.

(Image source: Gisela Giardino)

  • That’s sooooo interesting about the Upworthy guy! And about the FB thing too. Glad to see you back here spewing your thoughts – they’re always different than anything else I read from my friends 🙂 (Guess this wouldn’t populate correctly in my FB stream?)

  • Kristen Grimes

    Great post, Nate! It got me thinking and that’s always a good thing! 🙂

  • Hope Macary

    Yep. Ironic, the Upworthy thing. And agree with the risk, real or perceived about public commenting. Ugh. Oh, and Twitter is one of the places my 13 year old hangs out. In his words “Finally old enough for Facebook and now it’s just old people there”. Ha!
    Always enjoy your posts, Nate. Somehow you make it past my filters. In a good way. Thanks for that.

  • Joni Thomas Doolin

    Brilliant and thought provoking as always Nate. I love your writing and your contrarian nature. John Mackey taught us last week that you have to evolve or die, and that you can’t do that without dissonance. Oh and “I want a” search on twitter is a little frightening. Take care.

    • Always appreciate your time and your thoughts, Joni. You’re one of the good ones, and I know you “get it.”

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