We used to be admonished to get out of our comfort zone. Now, we need to get out of our ‘filter bubble’.
What is a ‘filter bubble’ and why should each of us break out of our filter bubble? A filter bubble is an online comfort zone – a behavioural space where there is a sense of familiarity, security and certainty because your worldview is confirmed by those who you interact with online.
The term ‘filter bubble’ was coined by Upworthy co-founder and CEO Eli Pariser in 2011. He explains to Eric March what a filter bubble is:
“The filter bubble is the personalized universe of information that we increasingly live in online. Websites know who we are, and they tailor their content to what they think we want to see. And when you add all of that up, you get your own personal filter bubble.”
Why is this a problem?
Pariser explains that we don’t always realize that this filtering is being done for us, and we don’t see what’s being filtered out. So, without knowing it, we can see a view of the world that we think is representative, but is actually just showing us what these websites think we want to see.
The personalized filter bubbles come into existence when platforms like Google and Facebook use algorithms to determine what we see online, based on what they think we want to see.
But it’s worse than that.
These platforms take their choices for us too far: they exclude information that might challenge our pre-existing beliefs or make us feel uncomfortable. In this way, we stay safe and secure in the belief that the world is as we see it: we are in our own personalized filter bubble.
You can actually test Google for filter bubbles. Pariser talks about an experience he had listening to a radio show host asking people to google “Barack Obama” to see what comes up. Well, different people had Google auto-complete Barack Obama differently. I have seen the same with using different people’s computers and typing ‘women’ into google search. According to some computers’ world view, women should shut up and stay in the kitchen while others revealed that women are great caregivers and another that women always need men.
But, who wants to be exposed to viewpoints that might be disturbing and just plain unacceptable in their media feeds?
Well, think about it for a minute. If we all avoid other points of view, how can there ever by any understanding between people?
Says Pariser: “It’s always tempting to just write off people who disagree with you. I think it’s really important to at least understand how they could come to believe what they believe. Because even if you don’t agree, understanding the framework in which they’re operating opens up the door to persuasion and to an actual conversation.”
So, what can we do to get outside our filter bubble?
Pariser has a few suggestions.
The first is to seek out what Ethan Zuckerman calls “bridge figures” – people who kind of have a foot in several different communities. And they can act as a kind of interpreter and help people. It’s hard to plunge right into a group of people who you deeply disagree with, so finding the bridge people who can interpret and explain how that group of people is seeing the world is often really important.
The second suggestion is to consult diverse sources of information, and actually engage with people on Twitter or Facebook who have opposing views to your own.
The third thing is to understand the slant of social media and news sources. They don’t all organize information the same way. Pariser makes the point that one will generally more likely see content from people you disagree with on Twitter than on Facebook, so you might decide to spend more of your time on a platform like Twitter.
He notes: “You can stay inside your bubble but that’s your choice. But the thing is, just because you choose to believe certain things are true doesn’t mean that’s actually what’s true.”
Something to think about.