Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You

Posted by nliakos on July 18, 2011

by Eli Pariser (Penguin 2011)

Since 2006, as a member of the online Community of Practice Webheads in Action, I have been pretty devil-may-care about my web presence.  Sure, I am careful about what I say and what information I divulge.  But I sometimes shop online (frequently for books; I bought this one from; I have countless blogs and wikis, mostly connected to my ESL classes; I have a rarely used Flickr stream and lots and lots of Picasa Web Albums; I have accounts (many of them dormant or never used) at countless free websites, some of which have probably gone under since I signed up (like Bubbleshare). I have three email and two Facebook accounts.

I knew kind of subliminally that all this stuff was eroding my privacy. Now, having read The Filter Bubble, my subliminal awareness has become very conscious. Eli Pariser is very concerned about the effects of personalization on Internet users.  Personalization is the tailoring of each person’s Internet experience to that person’s individual taste and personality. I knew Google was somehow tailoring my results to me: I noticed the targeted ads in my gmail (if I mentioned teaching, there would be ads for EFL teachers; if I mentioned babies there would be ads for baby stuff) but figured, well, this is not a person reading my emails; it’s just some kind of automatic word recognition algorithm. And I noticed that if I searched for information, the information that was likely to come up was local, more often than not (if I searched for Montgomery County, Google showed me results from Maryland, although there are Montgomery Counties in many other states as well).

On the other hand, I had no idea that Facebook was using an algorithm to decide which of my 366 friends’ status updates to show me and which not to show me (I assumed that I just missed updates because I do not check Facebook that often, or that some people just weren’t posting updates.). Pariser, however, who makes a point of friending conservatives because he wants to know what they are thinking, noticed that Facebook, having figured out that he is a liberal, was not showing him his conservative friends’ updates anymore.

Pariser is concerned that when what we see on the web (from Facebook, Google, Yahoo, the New York Times, the Washington Post…) reflects our own worldview, we will have no incentive to explore new ideas. In fact, we will not even be aware that these ideas exist. The Web, which was supposed to bring us together by enabling equal access to information to all, is set to snare each of us in our own little world of preconceptions and prejudices and to dumb down what we see to what we like and easily understand, at the expense of what we should know (in order to be educated consumers and citizens).  To make his point, Pariser dips into psychology (how we learn), biography (Mark Zuckerberg’s ideas of what we should and should not know) and computer science (how algorithms manage what we see). He shows us how fragile our contract with Facebook is, as FB continually keeps changing the rules about what it can do with all the personal information we share on its site.

I think everybody should read this book. It really makes you think. For me, as someone who has exclusively used free websites to build my online presence, this Andrew Lewis quote says it all: “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” (On the other hand, even if I am showered with targeted online ads, I don’t look at, click on, or buy because of those ads. I barely even notice them.)

This would be a great choice for the University of Maryland’s FirstYear Book.

One Response to “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You”

  1. Brad Wirz said

    Interesting… I need to check this out. I’ve heard about lots of scary stuff on Facebook when it comes to privacy protection. I notice “targeted” ads all of the time, but for some reason I only see politically-minded posts from friends on the opposite side of the aisle. Maybe Facebook has my settings reversed! Ha! Thanks for the review.

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