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Mind

Filters

NeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticMay 14, 2011 6:45 PM

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At TED, Eli Pariser, author of the The Filter Bubble, talks about how:

As web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, there's a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a "filter bubble" and don't get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our world-view. Eli Pariser argues powerfully that this will ultimately prove to be bad for us and bad for democracy.

His point is that the web is, technologically, a fantastic system of giving the consumers of information (i.e. you) exactly what they want, when they want it. It's enabled a degree of personalization which old media could never come close to. But this isn't necessarily a good thing, because people tend to pick and choose information that fits with their existing views and interests, and filters out everything else.

The problem is not entirely new. Back in the days when everyone read their daily newspaper, the newspaper editor was your filter. And because there were maybe a dozen newspapers in your region that you could buy, you'd choose the one that best fitted with your world-view.

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Indeed, in the UK, what newspaper you read says considerably more about you than what party you vote for. There are only 3 main political parties, but there are about 10 main newspapers, and in my experience people are more likely to change their vote than to change what they read.

But the internet allows people to cherry-pick far more effectively. The Guardian, for example, regularly prints articles that annoy, or at least challenge, many Guardian readers. That's inevitable, because no two people have exactly the same tastes: what one reader loves will have another reader tearing up his paper in frustration.

Nowadays, it's quite possible to get all of your news and views from blogs. Blogs are specialized: they cover a particular kind of stories, with a particular slant. Many of them do that extremely well. If you don't quite agree with a given blog, there's plenty of others with a slightly different approach to pick from. And you can pick as many blogs as you like until you've got a full set - exactly how you want it. Clearly, the potential to only find out about what you already want to hear is much greater.

New or not, it's certainly a problem. The good thing is that the internet makes it extremely easy to snap out of the filter bubble. A completely different perspective is just a click away: that's new, as well. All you need is to want to do that.

Why should you? Always reading stuff that you already agree with isn't the best way to get informed about something. Actually, it's just about the worst way to do that. If you're serious about wanting to learn the truth about something, you need to (critically) read different sources. But beyond that, it's just boring to always do the same things. There are a lot of cool things going on that you've never heard of.

Finally, if you're a blogger, remember that you're not just telling readers your opinions, you're helping them to filter out other people's. You don't have to feel bad about that, it's inevitable, but remember: if you really want to help your readers understand something, you need to tell them about the areas of disagreement.

I don't just mean linking to stupid people and then explaining why they're stupid. That's fun, but if you're serious, you need to link to the best examples of alternative views and give them a fair hearing. This is something that I feel I could do more of on this blog, and I hope to do it more in future.

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