When you search Google or scroll through your Facebook feed, (or if you’re checking your children’s social media feeds), you’ve likely noticed ads or posts that seem explicitly tailored for you. That’s because most search engines and social networks are built to collect data on preferences (based on search history, the things you click on and posts) and “push” more of your interests to you. So, when you Google something, you’ll get an entirely different set of results (at least on the first page) than your family, friends, neighbors and so on. This is what’s called a filter bubble and each of us has our own.
The filter bubble, otherwise known as an online or information bubble is “a situation in which an Internet user encounters only information and opinions that conform to and reinforce their own beliefs, caused by algorithms that personalize an individual’s online experience.” In a nutshell, what you like and are searching for online is what you’re going to keep seeing.
Google’s search engine isn’t the only one that has filter bubbles. We create social media filter bubbles every day. Think about it….all the people or pages you follow on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat contribute to your bubble, along with the threads you monitor on social news outlets like Reddit and 4chan, or channels you’ve subscribed to on YouTube.
It’s not that each member of the family can’t follow who or what they’re interested in, there’s nothing wrong with that at all. But what should worry you is that you and every member of your family can be biased because of the strict personalization of your filter bubble. In other words, the customization of the web could increasingly isolate each user into their own filter bubbles.
Eli Pariser, the founder of Upworthy, published his New York Times bestseller The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You. The book laid out how one’s personalized online algorithms were insulating the user from opposing views, predicting how echo chambers could leave consumers sheltered from different opinions.
“The danger of these filters is that you think you are getting a representative view of the world and you are really not, and you don’t know it,” Eli explains. “Some of these problems that our fellow citizens are having kind of disappear from view without even realizing it.”
“As a result, we live in this information environment that is both, on the one hand, more filter-bubbly, but also the bounds of what is considered acceptable to talk about, acceptable to think, and the norms, seem to be shifting. It is changing the bounds of what the conversation can be in a way that I think is pretty corrosive.”
Google knows a lot about you, from a lot of different data points, and their job is to give you the results you want. Not the unfiltered, highest ranking, most relevant results we think we’re getting.
One study, conducted over time by a college student himself, was curious about the social media filter bubble and how educated his fellow students were about the subject. During one part of the study, the college students were asked to explain the basic mechanics of Facebook, like friending and following, scrolling, clicking, liking, commenting and sharing. Their explanations showed familiarity with its interface and options for interacting, but what was not mentioned was how their actions affected the structure of their news feeds and individual posts.
When students were told how their news feed was manipulated based on personal taste, many were genuinely surprised and showed a student’s lack of awareness of personalization.
Google, in particular, has gradually increased the extent with which it tailors results. The filter bubble is not just specific to personal activity online it also takes into personal factors like device and location. Beware: you and your family are also potentially not free of Google’s own “internal bias.”
You can try and pop the filter bubble by clearing browsing history often, know what a trustworthy website looks like, double check sources, use the incognito option for online searches with popular browsers like Google and Firefox and you can also try using a more private browser like DuckDuckGo.
To get an easy understanding of what a filter bubble is and how to talk about it with your family, check out Eli Pariser’s 2011 Ted Talk here.