Bursting The Filter Bubble

The big news this week was the decision by 52% of British voters to leave the European Union, a.k.a. Brexit. I was shocked and dismayed by the result; and I bet many of you reading this newsletter felt the same way. Certainly my Facebook and Twitter news feeds were filled with recriminations towards the 52% who voted to leave. But this made me think: who are those 52% and why aren’t I seeing their points of view? The simple reason: they’re not in my social networks. And if they are, they’ve probably been blocked so I don’t see their updates! The reason why many of us didn’t see Brexit coming is that we’ve turned a blind eye towards those 52%. We’d filtered out the warning signs. So in this edition of the newsletter, I explore what we can do to fix that.

The Filter Bubble, a term coined by Eli Pariser in his 2011 book, has always been an issue with our social media technologies. We only see what we choose to see. We befriend and follow people who think like we do. We ignore the 52% who don’t share our worldview… well, except when we want to laugh at them or insult them. Added to this is a problem I’ve labeled “Selfish Media.” Much of what we do see on social media isn’t social at all, but selfish. Think about what the term ‘social’ means: community, supporting other people, listening. Do we get those things on Facebook or Twitter? Sometimes, but let’s be frank here. What we mostly get is egotistical posts, blinkered opinions, and lots of talking over each other.

Two Suggestions For Facebook & Twitter

So what can we do to overcome the Filter Bubble and Selfish Media? Firstly we need to find a way to listen to outside views again. I think the major social media companies – and in particular Facebook and Twitter – should step up here. Personalisation has been a catchphrase for social media up till this point, but it’s become too narrow. There needs to be more serendipity and better access to alternative viewpoints. Here are a couple of simple suggestions for both Facebook and Twitter:

  1. Facebook could add a new module to its news feed that highlights alternative viewpoints. So for example, if you see a lot articles about Brexit by The Guardian in your newsfeed, perhaps Facebook can highlight alternative commentary on the same topic by The Times. You may not choose to click on it, but at least Facebook will be giving you the option to read an alternative point of view. (hat-tip Gilad Lotan for suggesting an idea along these lines)
  2. Twitter could make it easy for its users to both create and subscribe to topical lists. Ok, lists on Twitter has been my hobby horse for some time. But in this case, it’s a no-brainer! An easy way to find out alternative viewpoints is to subscribe to a list of people you wouldn’t otherwise follow. Say I want to track what leading Republicans think of the upcoming US election. Well, turns out a nonprofit website called Tweet Congress has created a list of Republican politicians. I don’t have to follow any of those people individually, but it’d be useful to subscribe to and check the list every now and then.

It’s not all on the big social media companies though. Where there’s an opportunity to improve a user experience – as there clearly is here – there is an opportunity for a new startup. There are at least a couple of startups trying to burst the filter bubble. One was co-founded by Eli Pariser himself: Upworthy. It’s a news website that aims to “change what the world pays attention to.” Ok, like every other news site it posts about Donald Trump. But at least it gives us an alternative view of Trump that we don’t often see (one written from the point of view of a Muslim American, in this case). Another website trying to break the filter bubble is Counterpointing, which uses the ‘point/counterpoint’ structure to offer opposing views on the same story. Its latest post (at time of writing) is one entitled Is Brexit Good for Trump?. I think Counterpointing can do a much better job of summarising the pros and cons of each side, but I like the intent.

Conversing With The Enemy

The next challenge after listening to alternative views is, of course, to converse with the 52%. That’s much more difficult, since online discourse isn’t known for its civility – even among your own 48%. The gaps in understanding among different groups of people are too large and it’s a rare individual who can truly connect with everyone (the Dalai Lama might be the only person on Twitter who can). That said, here’s something that will improve the level of discourse amongst us all: stop being Outraged by things. Outrage on social media just leads to even more division. I’m outraged by the constant flow of outrage I see on social media!

Also consider the language you use on social media to describe people outside your circle. One of the best posts about Brexit I read was by Chris Arnade, who wrote this on Medium: “…we often outright mock anyone who can’t keep up, or doesn’t fit in with the new order. We call them dumb. Idiots. Religious freaks. Rednecks. Thugs. Hoodlums. Ghetto trash. White trash. The language we use to talk about those who have been left behind is rife with nasty attempts to turn them into lesser humans.” One of the recurring themes in my newsletter is humanism in technology, so Arnade’s point resonated with me.

In conclusion, I really think Facebook and Twitter must help bring alternative viewpoints to the public discourse about issues like Brexit. Then it’s up to us, the users, to actually pay attention to alternative points of view. The ultimate goal is to encourage civil discourse between different groups of people, which in this age of inequality is a hard thing to achieve. But one step at a time: how about we all try to at least consider other points of view, especially before spouting off our own opinions on Facebook or Twitter.

10 thoughts on “Bursting The Filter Bubble”

  1. Well stated Ric, I’m connected to many people via common interest in rare diseases, but get to see the strange (to me) political views of some. It’s an eye opener, for sure.
    I’m also frustrated at the inability to respond, politely, to posts I see and may strongly disagree with (anti-vax messages in particular) without having to spread the offending message with my response. Social media has some serious growing up to do, to be useful and relevant.

    • Thanks John. I guess it’s better to have our eyes opened, rather than not see opposing views at all. But you’re right that social media cos should give us better ways to discuss and share those things.

  2. A nice idea Richard, but to see the impracticality of it, just replace every mention of “social media” in your post with plain “media”. Why not insist Fox News or The Sun or The Daily Mail do the same?

    Secondly, Facebook, (like Google and, to a lesser extent, Twitter), are not social services. They’re commercial entities whose purpose is to make money. It would be more accurate to label Facebook and Google as advertising agencies, since that’s where most of their money comes from.

    Why do you think they’re so intent on gathering vast quantities of information about us? To improve those advertising hits!

    Religiously, politically, socially, they don’t care what you think. They just want to pander to your tastes — whatever they are — because they know that the way to make people receptive is not to challenge them.

    Thinking people install ad blockers, check up on “facts”, research things, use their discretion, and even examine their own biases — the very antithesis of the behaviour these “advertising agencies” want.

    • Thanks for your comment Geoff.

      Re “Why not insist Fox News or The Sun or The Daily Mail do the same?” I don’t have a problem with media being subjective, as long as I know where they stand. I’ll quite happily watch a bit of CNN, then flick over to Fox to see what their spin is. I guess I do see Facebook and Twitter as being (and pardon the trendy word) platforms for discussion. So I would like to see them try to engineer ways to broaden the public discourse. You’re right that they may not see it in their business interests to do so. Perhaps that’s where there is an opportunity for a competitor to emerge (longer term I mean).

      Re “Thinking people install ad blockers, check up on “facts”, research things, use their discretion, and even examine their own biases.” I agree (except for the ad blockers bit). All I’m suggesting is Fb and Tw could help people do those things – give them prompts (the FB example), give them options (in the case of Twitter lists).

  3. We need to acknowledge that we’ve always lived in filter bubbles. Our neighborhoods, religious establishments, and workplaces have served as filter bubbles. I’m not entirely convinced that the digital filter bubble is any worse than the filter bubbles in our offline world. That doesn’t mean we should expect less from digital and social media, but I’d really like to see data that backs up Eli’s claim that social media is making it worse. Perhaps Eli’s book provides strong scientific evidence and I just need to read it! 🙂 However, I wouldn’t be surprised if social media is actually doing a better job at expanding our world view than our offline filter bubbles. Remember, 93% of word-of-mouth is still offline! But I’m still trying to figure out where the first seeds of information are deposited. I have a suspicion that there are a few hungry information seekers that get their information digitally, and then spread it offline, which then continues to spread mostly offline. As always, thanks for provoking a great discussion!


  4. It’s been five weeks since I launched Presence, my science fiction novel about the future of Virtual Reality. In the opening month, I got some great reviews (and one or two bad ones). The sales had an early peak, but since then it’s been a struggle. Overall, it’s been a fun ride. I’ve learned a lot about how indie publishing works and that’s made me excited about my future as an indie author. On the other hand, I’ve also learned just how difficult it is to get a new book noticed. In this update, I’ll discuss all of those things.
    Firstly, the reviews. I want to say upfront that getting Amazon and/or Goodreads reviews for Presence was by far the most difficult task during the launch month. I sent loads of Advance Review Copies, to people on my email list and people in the technology industry (in particular, anyone I knew in VR). The response was frustratingly poor and the reviews I did end up getting mostly weren’t from ARC readers. I’ve since heard from fellow authors that I’m not alone in finding it tough to get early reviews. So I can’t be too down-hearted about it. But in my case, I can think of two major reasons for the lack of response from ARC recipients: most of the people I sent it to probably don’t read science fiction, plus reading a book is a decent investment of time for anyone. Even my book, which is a fast-paced techno thriller, probably takes on average a week to read. So in terms of learnings, for my next novel I’ll try and target known readers of science fiction in the ARC phase.
    All that said, I was encouraged by the early reviews I did get. Noted investor Brad Feld was the first to review it, saying that the book is “dynamite” and adding, “I’m very hopeful that his phrase invirt will catch on for in virtual reality.” I certainly hope for that too, since I believe invirt is the next online. So far, it’s yet to fully catch on – but you never know.
    Another early review came from blogger Zach Beauvais, who wrote that my years as a tech journalist gave me “the ability to introduce us to an incredibly believable world in Presence.” Fellow science fiction writer Eliot Peper was very complimentary, saying that Presence is “an electrifying ride through the future of virtual reality” and “a technothriller that will keep you turning pages long past your bedtime.” Influential technology thought leaders like Brian Ahier and Bertalan Mesko also gave great reviews. Brian said Presence has “a compelling story line that keeps the pages turning around a backdrop of all of the top technology issues percolating through society today.”
    What about reviews from people I don’t know and who actually bought my book? Probably my favorite of those was from Josh Todd, who wrote that Presence “completely changed the way I think about VR and what it can/will look like in a few years from now. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see some of the terminology coined in this book become part of the zeitgeist inreal.”
    Sales & Media Coverage
    Like anything in the creative arts, being an indie author is a Long Tail business. Sure, there are a few authors in any given genre who are well-known, get lots of attention and earn buckets of money. But the rest of us are spread out on a very long tail, where attention is hard to get and monthly earnings range from non-existent to low. So I wasn’t kidding myself when I launched Presence. I knew it would take a lucky break – in the form of an influential review or a writeup in a popular blog – to make headway.
    I did catch a break when TechCrunch (former competitor of the tech blog I founded, ReadWriteWeb) posted an excerpt in early October. That resulted in a nice little spike of sales. I can thank John Biggs for that, a TechCrunch writer who a) knew who I was (or at least remembered me vaguely from the Web 2.0 days), and b) is an author himself, so presumably was sympathetic to my struggles.
    In terms of learnings for my next book, next time I need to capitalize better on breaks like the TechCrunch post. If, for example, I had placed my book immediately into the Kindle Unlimited program at that time (which is like ‘Spotify for Amazon’, where readers can read your book for free if they’re a monthly subscriber), then I may’ve been able to stick around in the top 20 of Cyberpunk for longer than a few days. It turns out that’s a key part of gaining sales and downloads momentum. So I missed an opportunity there, although I eventually did join Kindle Unlimited towards the end of October.
    I tried my best to interest other tech blogs in my book, but most of the bloggers I contacted were too busy. Having been a tech blogger myself, I understand how frantic the news cycle is in that world. Plus tech blogs generally don’t review books (although I did some book reviews in my ReadWriteWeb days, so I think there’s value in covering books – although admittedly, fiction is a less straight forward sell).
    Alas, I didn’t manage to garner any interest at all from science fiction blogs or magazines, where I have yet to achieve any name recognition. I did get some very kind and supportive responses from established authors in my genre, such as David Brin and Ramez Naam. So I was grateful for that.
    In terms of interviews, I did a fun call with the Robot Overlordz podcast. Also Haptical, a news blog about VR, ran a good Q&A with me.
    Early Learnings
    Other than learning how difficult it is to get attention for and sell copies of one’s debut novel, I’ve had a great time immersing myself in the indie publishing world. I’ve still got a lot to learn about both writing and publishing science fiction novels, but there’s a wealth of knowledge and resources out there. Including fantastic blogs from indie stars like Joanna Penn, Jane Friedman, Susan Kaye Quinn and K.M. Weiland. I recently posted my first message to the KBoards Writer’s Cafe, a thriving message board for indie authors. So I’m enjoying getting to know a new community.
    Indeed, the community aspect of indie publishing reminds me of when I started ReadWriteWeb. At that time, 2003-04, the community of bloggers was the best thing about publishing on the Web. Sadly, those days are long gone in the tech industry. But I’m encouraged that the indie author community still uses blogging and message boards as a way to interact, instead of relying on selfish media tools like Twitter and Facebook.
    Overall, the biggest learning for me in my first month as an indie author is how much I enjoy being in control of the entire publishing and marketing process. With my first book, Trackers, I went the traditional publishing route. It did ok, but the lack of information about sales data, marketing strategies, and so on ultimately frustrated me. While it’s been tough to get attention and sales for Presence, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed doing my best to rustle up reviews, trying different marketing ideas, getting to know other writers and readers of science fiction, and just generally bootstrapping myself as an indie author. So I’m very positive about the future!
    Support an indie author and buy my book. It’s available now from Amazon.

  5. Each December going back to 2004, I’ve done a year in review blog post about technology. This year I’m focusing on technology trends rather than specific products. But I’ll mention many of my favorite tech products as part of the review.
    In time, we may look back on 2016 as the beginning of the big shift away from mobile phones. Why? Because much of the innovation in 2016 happened in product categories like Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Wearables, and Internet of Things (IoT). In those categories, the mobile phone typically isn’t the primary device (although it’s often a supporting or connecting device – at least for now). In VR, headsets such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive are the primary devices. With wearables and IoT, the primary device is either attached to our body or integrated into our environment. And while consumer AI is sometimes phone-based (for example, Siri), usually it’s either device-less (like IBM Watson) or a bold new type of device (like the Amazon Echo). As these trends continue to evolve, eventually we won’t need smartphones at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at the trends of 2016 that started this gradual shift…
    1. Virtual Reality Becomes Reality

    After decades of hype, 2016 was the year that VR arrived as a consumer product. Three major VR headsets were released this year: Facebook’s Oculus Rift in March, the HTC Vive in April, and Sony’s Playstation VR in October. All helped make VR a reality this year. On the down side, we learned over 2016 that compelling VR content hasn’t arrived yet. Especially if you weren’t already an avid gamer. Also the level of presence – that feeling of truly believing you’re in an alternate reality – has a long way to go for the current crop of devices.
    But at least VR is a real, commercially viable technology now. Not to mention it has inspired certain science fiction authors to speculate about where it might take us in the future.
    2. Conversing With Artificial Intelligence

    AI has been evolving at a steady clip for many years now, but until now there hasn’t been a breakthrough consumer AI product. In 2016 it became clear that Amazon Echo was that product; it was released outside of the US for the first time this year. The idea is that you talk to the Echo device via a voice service called Alexa (Amazon calls Alexa “the brain behind Echo”). This may prompt comparisons to the infamous movie AI, HAL 9000, in Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Luckily, so far there haven’t been any reports of a rebellious Alexa, although it did make a couple of guest appearances this year in the dark (and brilliant) tv show Mr Robot.
    Alexa is a form of intelligent assistant, a product type that Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others are all exploring. A related trend over 2016 was the rise of ‘chatbots,’ which are integrated into Instant Messaging apps. What they have in common with Alexa is their conversational interface. Facebook began experimenting with chatbots this year in the Messenger app, in an attempt to catch up to its more sophisticated Asian competitors.
    3. Social Media Jumps The Shark

    2016 was the year “selfish media” finally went too far. Whether it was fake news, filter bubbles that prevent people from seeing (let alone understanding) other viewpoints, over-sharing people dominating our feeds, the outrage culture that permeates the media, or simply the overwhelming flow of blinkered opinions we get every day on social media… I’ve had enough. I’ve already begun to dial down my social media consumption.
    It’s not all bad, of course. I still enjoy keeping in touch with family and friends on Facebook, and Twitter is useful for tracking narrowly defined interests. But social media proved in 2016 that it is not a viable news platform – at least if we want truthful and open-minded discussions. Bring back blogs in 2017?
    4. Society Begins To Tackle Automation

    We’ve only just started the conversation about how to transition to an economy which is heavily automated. In 2016, there were multiple warning signs of the potential impact. Take Uber, for example. The popular ride-sharing app began actively trialling driverless Uber cars in 2016. It’s likely that Uber’s driverless car fleet will eventually take the jobs of tens of thousands of human drivers – and that could easily happen within a decade. What will all those drivers do next?
    This conversation is less about the technology itself, than it is about finding solutions to what automation will do to our working culture. That could mean implementing a Universal Basic Income, or people becoming more creative in how they earn an income. We don’t yet know how to deal with increasing automation. But it’s an important topic and in 2016 we, as a global society, at least started talking about it.
    5. Pokémon GO & The Dawn of Augmented Reality

    I couldn’t do a review of 2016 without mentioning Pokémon GO, which had an extraordinary burst of popularity over July and August. Without a doubt the killer app of this year, Pokémon GO brought Augmented Reality (AR) into the mainstream. At one point it seemed like every kid in my city was chasing cartoon characters down the street. And the irony, at least for me? Pokémon GO was a smartphone app. So mobile phones are not dead yet!
    Ultimately, I think Pokémon GO was an outlier this year. I look back on 2016 as the year in which Internet technology went well beyond our mobile phones. Whether it was VR headsets in our lounges, Alexa in our living rooms, or driverless cars being tested on our roads, 2016 expanded the scope of what it means to be ‘online’ (or ‘invirt’ as I put it in my VR novel). I expect to see more of this expansion in coming years.
    So when will the smartphone lose its status as our primary Internet device? Probably not for many years. However, perhaps this generation of teenagers will be the last to walk around with their necks craned downwards, staring at a small rectangular screen.
    Lead image: Wired

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