Are You Living in a "Filter Bubble"?

August 17, 2016

Aaaand we're back! After Monday's holiday, we had an enforced second day off when our whole office building lost power for most of the workday on Wednesday. So it's been a little hard to get back up to speed.

While scanning Twitter in bed that day (the bedroom being the only room in our apartment with AC), I saw a link to a post called "Are Facebook and Twitter bad for your information diet?" You may have noticed that Facebook and Twitter (especially their failings) are kind of my beat around here, so of course this caught my eye.

Clay Johnson, who runs a blog called InfoVegan about "information obesity, information diets, and civic accountability," wrote the post in response to a video of Eli Pariser's talk at Personal Democracy Forum in June:

Pariser's talk addresses the fact that more and more people get their news from secondary sources like Facebook and Twitter rather than directly from newspapers or television news. Because people selectively filter who they follow on social networks, and because systems like Facebook and Google apply personalization filters to the results they serve up, he argues that we're getting stuck in "filter bubbles"—traps in which we're only exposed to information that is familiar and comfortable.

Initially, social networks seemed to disintermediate the news; for example, we could hear what was happening in Iran from the people on the ground there, instead of through U.S. news sources. But Pariser argues that we're now entering a stage of "re-intermediation," where behind-the-scenes personalization algorithms again prevent us from seeing a less biased, more balanced version of the truth. As SEOs are fully aware, there is no standard Google SERP anymore—personalization isn't just the default, it's all there is. As Pariser says, "Rather than us having to adjust to the world, the world seems to adjust to our liking."

Johnson agrees that this is a problem, illustrating with an example: He used paper.li to build his own newspaper from his Twitter stream. The results? A blatantly biased left-wing rag. If this were the only news source he ever consulted, he says, he'd be "trapped inside a partisan echo chamber." And giving people exactly and only what they want isn't generally what's best for them.

I'm interested in this issue because I've always been intrigued by cognitive bias. The way we get our "news" today, as well as our entertainment, is a classic case of confirmation bias: "a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, independently of whether they are true." We did this even before the days of personalized search, by selectively clicking on links that confirmed our suspicions or beliefs. But it's even easier to do that now, when we're less likely to even see links that challenge our beliefs. (Of course, the fact that I latched onto this video and Pariser's theory is a case of confirmation bias itself—I'm always looking for evidence of bias and here I found it!)

So how do you escape your filter bubble? I've got a few ideas.

  • Argue with people. This is an unpopular opinion, I know—a lot of people think arguments are always negative. But I think they're an excellent way to figure out what you think—you may have never had to articulate your thoughts on a given topic before, but being challenged forces you to do so. It's also a great opportunity for learning. If you only spend time with people who share your opinions and interests, you can never learn anything new from them. The key is to argue with people you respect. (And, of course, don't lose your temper!)
  • Approach life more like debate club. In debate, it's crucial to know the arguments from both sides of an issue. Even if you're a diehard liberal, it can be useful to know the conservative arguments on hot-button issues like global warming or immigration. Similarly, it's good to occasionally question consensus opinions. People tend to assume the consensus must be right. We forget how often past consensus opinions turned out to be wrong.
  • Stray from your bookmarks and favorites. Sometimes at the end of the week, after reading all the regular blogs in my feed reader, I feel I have nothing to write about. Nothing stood out or sparked my interest. So I have to seek out new material. One way to do this is to follow shared links on Twitter—they're vetted by people you know, but they might easily come from sources you don't usually read. Another way is to check out what's hot on sites like Sphinn or Slashdot or Metafilter, or to do a Google blog search on a topic you're curious about. There are still filters in place, but at least you're leaving the little carved out zone of sites you visit every day.

Internet Marketing Highlights from the Week

Lots of good stuff this week:

On Search Engine Watch, Jennifer Van Iderstyne explains why no one is linking to you.

Dave Naylor points out 6 things that Google is getting wrong.

Twitter is apparently the fastest-growing search engine. This reminds me of my mom telling me a long time ago that Klingon was the fastest-growing language, because it had such a small base, if just a handful of new people learned it, it had grown 100+%.

Jonathan Mendez offers some thoughts on paywall models.

Bill Slawski notices that Bing sometimes categorizes search results and questions how and why Bing does it.

At Marketing Pilgrim, a great case study of a reputation management win for a Reddit user.

At PPC Blog, Aaron Wall examines a new kind of match type that Google appears to be beta testing.

Speaking of leaving your comfort zone, Julie Joyce provides some tips to help you avoid "one-dimensional" link building. (She also confirms my bias against Shakespeare in Love, and my love for the Christian the Lion video.)

And finally, Mashable did a roundup of celebrity tweets following Wednesday's earthquake in L.A., confirming my belief that celebrities are incredibly boring on Twitter (and that Wil Wheaton is an incorrigible egomaniac).

Have a great weekend!

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

Sign up to get our top tips and tricks weekly!