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Ever since Eli Pariser wrote his acclaimed book “The Filter Bubble” in 2011, people have been talking about the way that the fundamental architecture of the web may be working to divide people rather than bring them together. And with the rise of social media, that trend has only become more pronounced – just consider the “fake news” phenomenon and how most people’s social media feeds are now filled with people who think, act and react just like them. So could 2018 be the year that this “filter bubble” finally pops?
Re-thinking the “filter bubble” for the social media era
The reality is that the big social media and Internet companies – think Facebook, Google and Twitter – are actually doing very little to fix the problem. What Pariser once referred to as the “invisible algorithmic editing of the web” is only becoming more entrenched. And this makes perfect sense from a business perspective – the best way to create a “sticky” web experience is to show you what you want to see, not what you should see.
In a sense, “showing you what you should see” was the role played by the former champions of the media world – the New York Times, the Washington Post and the nightly news. Their role was to showcase the stories, news and narratives that mattered. The New York Times’ classic slogan was “all the news that’s fit to print.”
But in today’s social media environment, would any company seriously come up with such a preposterous slogan? Instead, any social media company trying to keep afloat in an era of clicks and views would probably come up with a slogan like, “all the news that’s trending, viral and going to make you click.”
The “filter bubble” is so subtle that many people may not want to fix it
The problem, in many ways, is that the way the modern filter bubble works is so subtle that many people may not even realize it exists. For example, one favorite example that Eli Pariser often highlighted was how Google could make us completely blind to things happening around us, depending on our former behaviors online.
During the Arab Spring of 2010-2011, for example, some people typing “Egypt” into Google might get news about travel, history and tourism. But other people using the exact same news might get news about the revolution unfolding in Egypt (and across the entire Middle East) at the time. See? Two completely different types of information for two completely different types of people.
And that same trend is now at work in today’s political climate. We only see updates that match with our own ideological beliefs. Trump supporters see pro-Trump and anti-Clinton news, while Clinton supporters only see pro-Clinton and anti-Trump news. Just try engaging in a conversation with a person who doesn’t share your views. Instead of “agreeing to disagree,” the most common response is something along the lines of, “You’re wrong, and I don’t want to listen to you.”
As Pariser hinted, all media is ideological these days. All the news providers out there who claim to be “fair and unbalanced” – those are the people that you should probably trust the least. And, in the same vein, all the social media companies that have largely shirked responsibility for the “fake news” epidemic and the creation of echo chambers across the web should be viewed with more skepticism. Instead of hiding behind their algorithms and data, they should be making real changes.
If the “filter bubble” pops, then what happens next?
Of course, there have been some little nips and tucks around the edges. Facebook says it has re-tweaked its algorithm to discount the value of fake news. Twitter says it has also changed its news feed, showing you not only what’s trending right here and now, but also stories and tweets that should have been surfaced earlier. But it’s hard to ignore the continued emphasis on trending and viral content.
So what happens if the “filter bubble” really does pop? It would mean people turning their backs on social media. The old media companies – with all their tip jars and desperate pleas for people to re-subscribe to their print media publications – are probably hoping that means a massive return of their older audiences.
But the answer could be a lot more complex than that. Who’s to say that Amazon – now that it has invaded our homes this past holiday season with Echoes and Dots – won’t become the basis for a revolutionary new type of media platform?
And that might be the biggest lesson here – with any new disruptive change comes the emergence of a new leader, not just the restoration of the past. If that happens, then 2018 could be very exciting indeed.