By Kevin Meyer
Almost exactly a year ago I discussed the growing trend of people skewing their view of the world by filtering the sources of their news and information.
The left-leaning blogs do nothing but quote other left-leaning information sources, and right-leaning blogs do the same on their end. By effectively looking inward for all their information each becomes convinced in the singular validity of their opinions at the expense of all others. They begin to redefine "left and right" as "the left and right sides of the left" and the "left and right sides of the right"… and come up with crazy terms like DINO (Democrat in Name Only) and RINO to describe those that dare move toward one edge of their bubble of information and perspective. Each side moves further and further apart, leaving those of us in the middle less and less aligned.
Unfortunately I've seen this continue to grow as we approach another election year. One result that would be humorous if it wasn't so serious is how each side regards the main stream media with disdain. Funny how that works.
Apparently these filters are not just of their own doing. As The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday in a book review on Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble, a growing desire by information providers to tailor information for the likes and dislikes of their customers has also created a filter.
Last year Eli Pariser, president of the board of the liberal-activist site MoveOn.org, had a shocking realization. A heavy Facebook user, he had become friends—at least on Facebook—with an assortment of conservative thinkers and pundits. As a serious thinker, he wanted to have his opinions on current events challenged by those with opposing political ideologies.
But it struck Mr. Pariser one day that he hadn't seen a single status update from any of the loyal opposition in a while. Had his sources of conservative thought stopped posting? Had they unfriended him? No, Facebook had quietly stopped inserting their updates into his news feed on the site. Had the social-networking giant figured out that he was a liberal?
It turned out that Facebook had changed the algorithm for its news feeds, in response to its users' complaints that they were being overwhelmed by updates from "friends" whom they hardly knew. The 600-million-member social network now filters status updates so that, by default, users see only those from Facebook friends with whom they've recently interacted—say, by sending a message or commenting on a friend's post.
It's not just Facebook. How about Amazon and Google.
It's no secret that Amazon, for example, customizes its pages to suggest products that are most likely to be of interest, based on shoppers' past purchases. But most Google users don't realize that, since 2009, their search results have been gradually personalized based on the user's location, search history and other parameters. By tracking individual Web browsers with cookies, Google has been able to personalize results even for users who don't create a personal Google account or are not logged into one. Mr. Pariser asked two friends to search for "BP" shortly after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year. The two were shown strikingly different pages—one full of news about the disaster, the other mostly investor information about the energy company.
Consider the impact.
But Mr. Pariser worries that there's a dark downside to giving people their own custom version of the Internet. "Personalization isn't just shaping what we buy," he writes. "Thirty-six percent of Americans under thirty get their news through social networking sites." As we become increasingly dependent on the Internet for our view of the world, and as the Internet becomes more and more fine-tuned to show us only what we like, the would-be information superhighway risks becoming a land of cul-de-sacs, with each of its users living in an individualized bubble created by automated filters—of which the user is barely aware.
To Mr. Pariser, these well-intended filters pose a serious threat to democracy by undermining political debate. If partisans on either side of the issues seem uninterested in the opposition's thinking nowadays, wait until Google's helpful sorters really step up their game.
Mr. Pariser is obviously concerned with the political impact, but think how this can skew information – and thereby perspectives and analyses – on basically anything.
Do you really know what you don't know? How would you know?