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PdF '10: Eli Pariser's Case Against the Filtered Web

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, June 11 2010


Eli Pariser painted the image of an updated Daily Me in which machines determine what we see, read, and hear online, in his talk at PdF '10 last week. Call them "filter bubbles," said Pariser, of the web experiences that are increasingly being custom made for each of us, a product of automated digital personalization.

"I've always believed," opened Pariser, the current president of MoveOn, "that the Internet would make things more open, more democratic, more flat." And yet, the online trend towards greater customization is a threat to that promise by keeping us from experiencing different viewpoints or exposing us to new ideas. (Steven Johnson's upcoming book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, due out this fall, should provide some real insight into just what sort of ecosystems produce smart thinking -- and whether filter bubbles are producing a web that isn't one.) Instead of disintermediation, suggested Pariser, we're entering an age of re-intermediation. Instead of big instructions and established players, formulas are the new powers-that-be.

"As these algorithms get more sophisticated and more pervasive," Pariser argued, "it will become harder to go direct."

An example, said Pariser, is that "there is no standard Google anymore." Instead, he reported, the company uses 57 different things it knows about its users to serve us custom search results. Netflix and Amazon push customer towards what their data says they should be interested in. Facebook, said Pariser, chooses to downplay on his news feed what his conservative friends post on the site. There's extra offense in that, suggested Pariser, because Facebook is filtering out the exact ideological others Pariser's chosen to friend for the very purpose of exposing himself to diverse ways of thinking.

The trend towards greater customization seems to be getting more noticeable as tools like Google and platforms like Facebook try to build their businesses by becoming what looks more like crafted environments. (See, for example, how Facebook's recent introduction of "community pages" into that environment changes things for its users.)

How to pop filter bubbles? Pariser makes the case that all involved share some responsibility. As users, we should be devoting media criticism to the first page of Google search results like we devote it to the front page of the New York Times. Then there are the environment builders -- Google, Facebook. Pariser argued that online creators need to become more transparent about what factors they're using to customize our online experiences. Privacy policies became a staple of the web, posted on nearly every website where one might be relevant. Users came to learn to demand them. Maybe personalization policies are next?

Give it a watch.

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