Two elderly gentlemen who were the best of friends were passing each other on the street. Allen calls over to Seymour and says, “Seymour, have a great day!” To which Seymour replies “Go to hell!” Allen says to Seymour, “What gives?” And Seymour replies, “If I had answered you politely, you would have asked me where I was going, and when I told you the name of the restaurant, you would have said “No, don’t go there, this other one is better”. We would have argued about the merits of various restaurants endlessly and eventually I would have told you to “Go to hell”. I am hungry and thought I would save us all some time.” (modified from Ausubel, 1948)
Filter bubbles is a term coined to describe a trend in internet search engines, one that some see as a new threat to our ability to receive and process information in an unbiased fashion. (Pariser, 2011) It used to be that when you searched the internet you got results that were wide open. Anything having to do with the topic you searched upon would theoretically turn up. Search on famine and you would find information on what is going on in impoverished countries as well as perhaps a new fashion trend called “famine dressing”. The search results were unedited, raw and covered whatever topics happened to match your search term.
This can be contrasted to newspaper reporting, at least at reputable papers, where an editor purposely searches out various aspects of a topic to present it from differing angles and points of view, including those the editor knows readers will disagree with or be uncomfortable with. The editor acts a filter on what news you see, and a good editor broadens your perspective rather than conforms to it.
Today internet search engines are becoming smarter. They are looking to make your searching more productive and to help you find the results you are seeking faster. In order to do that they can keep track of the kind of searches you undertake and the items you further review from your searching activity. Search on wood rot repair supplies and you will find that ads for companies that supply rot repair material will follow you around the web. Similarly, search on a type of shoe and those shoes will walk in your footsteps, following you as you maneuver the information resource the web represents. This is all well and good for ads for supplies, but a similar process hold true for other topics as well. If you search on political topics and delve into the more conservative “hits” you find, and then later on you search on another similar topic the conservative “hits” will be at the top of your results. Other points of view may not even show up on the list. This new kind of filtering, rather than broadening your perspective and knowledge about a topic, simply reinforces your current notions about a topic and could be seen as weakening the power of the internet to inform. In other words, the new internet surrounds you with information that simply conforms to your existing point of view.
This filter is fine for people who are seeking out confirmatory information for the beliefs they already have, which is a human tendency anyway, but for those who are looking for new or differing points of view this filter poses a threat. Is it really a new threat though?
When this was first brought to my attention it reminded me of an incident that happened early in my career. I was asked to create a selection system for executive assistants. I did the job analysis and created a system that was validated against the performance levels of the current incumbents. I was then told that my multiple hurdle approach to selection for these positions was going to have one final hurdle. I asked what that was and was told that it was going to be political affiliation. You could only be an effective executive assistant if you were registered with a certain political party, I was told. As a young idealist I was aghast. Political affiliation did not show up on my list of bona fide occupational requirements. Not to mention that the information on political affiliation was supposed to be private and confidential. When I mentioned that I did not see the rationale and besides you could not ask about political affiliation, I was told that the final hurdle in the selection system would be handled by someone else and I should not worry about it. The rationale for this hurdle was that to promote harmonious relations in the executive suite it would be beneficial to have it full of people who all thought alike, and believed in the same things. I gave my notice at that company not too long after.
Executives, or at least their surrogates in HR, wanted to surround the most senior folks running the company with assistants who only thought like they did, believing in the same things as they did. Could it be that internet filtering is simply a new form of a process that has been going on for a very long time? And those who would prefer not to know new information will always find a way to support their already held beliefs and those who actually desire to search out new points of view and alternatives will also find a way?
© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
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