There was a time when the Internet promised to offer us a vibrant cultural milieu that would expand our horizons.
But as the Web develops, the opposite may be happening.
In his fascinating new book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You (Penguin Press), Eli Pariser, board president and former executive director of MoveOn.org, explores the rise of "personalized" Internet filters whose very purpose is to narrow, rather than expand, the world that we see.
The implications are serious, Pariser notes. In a personalized world, Web users are increasingly fed only the news and information that fits with their Internet profile, as gleaned from past behavior tracked by a burgeoning industry of data companies that can divine everything from your political leanings to your favorite color. Rather than expand our world, critics note, personalization is pushing us into advertiser-driven "tunnels" of information online that can limit the unexpected encounters that spark innovation and the democratic exchange of ideas.
PW recently caught up with Pariser in his New York office, where he heads the Avaaz Foundation, one of the world's largest citizen organizations, to talk about the rise of "personalized" Internet filters and the implications for the health of our culture and our democracy.
In late 2009 there was an event of sorts that led you to write this book, correct? Can you tell us a little about that?
I was taking a couple days off to do a little thinking, sort of a retreat, and I came across a Google blog post saying that they were turning on personalized search for everyone. So I immediately got a friend to come over and we started doing searches to see how different our personalized results would be. And they were really different. It dawned on me that if Google, a service that I use every day, could do this right under my nose, without me really noticing, this kind of filtering could be happening all over the Web. And indeed it is. And, you'd have to be following Google's corporate blog to know this was going on, and even then you'd have to be able to read between the lines to realize that this change was actually a pretty huge deal. This also speaks to the nature of the personalization phenomenon, which is that it's impossible to notice the changes on your own, because you can't see how different your search results are from anyone else's until you put your computers side by side.
Can you briefly explain what the filter bubble is?
Filter bubble is a term I came up with to describe the effects of these personalized filters that are increasingly editing the Web for us. When you go online, whether it's Netflix, Amazon, Pandora, Google, Facebook, or now even the Washington Post and the New York Times, what you're really seeing is the world the Internet thinks you want to see, not the view you might expect to see or need to see. So the term filter bubble serves as a metaphor for this personalized universe of information we live in.
There have always been filters, of course—the buyer at Barnes & Noble, your editor at Penguin. Why are these new breed of personalized Internet filters different?
For one, Internet filters are invisible, and oftentimes, you're not aware that filtering is even going on. It's one thing if you turn on Fox News or pick up the New York Times, because you know what kind of stories you are likely to see there. When you search for something on Google, however, you have no idea what Google thinks you want to see, and most people have no idea that Google is even making these kinds of choices. The other thing is that you have no control over them. There's a big difference between choosing to pick up an issue of the Weekly Standard or the Nation, and having a search engine decide which things are placed in front of you.
As the world continues to go digital, are these Internet filters affecting or otherwise changing the way traditional, analogue-world filters function? For example, changing how an editor might choose content?
Well, they're not changing quickly enough, really, because Internet filtering is totally changing the dynamics of how information moves. In the print and broadcast world, we are so used to just assuming that if you put a story out, people will see it. But online, those stories run through a second layer, which is an Internet filter saying, "I'm going to find the stories that are right for you." That changes the dynamic a lot. Newspapers now really have to consider where people's attention is likely to go, and what people are likely to click on, and that means that what people click on has a lot more power than any publisher saying, "This story is important because we published it." That proposition is now relatively less powerful.