As Technologists, how do we ‘pop’ the filter bubble that the tech industry helped create? Online polarization isn’t as clear-cut people think. Let’s face it — we’re trapped. Every time I scroll through my news and social media feeds, it seems like I browse through the same type of content — from the same sources — with the same ads.
It feels as though my news feed has been hijacked. However, this “hijacking” feels more pervasive. Like I’m being watched by an entity that knows my personal taste, preferences, and patterns eerily well. Am I feeding my own news feed?
Professionally, I need to read different websites and go beyond social media to get my news. Since most media outlets are now publishing their content on social media — browsing can be useful — but only if you look hard enough. Even then, all of the content we see online is filtered through a lens.
Social Filter Bubble
Perhaps it’s a natural evolution of technology, but whether we like it or not, social media has become the main source of information. In a recent study, Forbes found that over 200 MILLION Americans use social media to get their news. Is everyone sifting through the same hyper-targeted ads? There are over 3.2 billion social media posts every day, which is why it seems to take forever to access valuable information.
Most alarmingly, is that it seems the more time we spend on our news feed, the more personal data we are creating for these tech giants. I picture it as a trail of data I leave behind for advertisers to follow me with — creating that never-ending, repetitive loop, cutting me off from receiving new information.
This incessant and repetitive loop is referred to as “filter bubble”, a concept popularized by Eli Pariser in his book, and immortalized by his TED Talk. “Ultimately, democracy works only if we citizens are capable of thinking beyond our narrow self-interest,” wrote Pariser. “But to do so, we need a shared view of the world we co-inhabit.
It turns out, we are the masters of our own curated worlds. If you think back to each time you click on a headline, every time you “like” an article, or each time we unfollow someone who shares an opinion we disagree with — we are training or, even flagging the tech giants to only give us more of the same. That’s why the big social networks keep feeding us what we’re used to seeing on our news feeds — because it makes us feel comfortable. But this comfort has an underlying price.
What do we do, where do we start to find a healthy balance?
There are a few things that we can do. We can start with the small things, like seeking out lesser-known TV shows or news sites that have real, neutral conversations and make balanced observations. We can also follow diverse news publications and public figures to inform us about content highlighting different perspectives.
There really shouldn’t be a debate about whether or not the filter bubble exists. Eli Pariser warned us about it in his Ted Talk back in 2011 and today, 8 years later, the bubble has grown and none of the big tech players have even acknowledged it — aside from Twitter, which has recently given over some control of their algorithm to their users.
Yes, we are the masters of our own curated worlds. We can choose to follow quality information and ignore clickbait headlines, but the tech giants don’t make that easy on us. The tech giants and media companies may have created the filter bubble, but we perpetuate it.
Are there Websites or apps out there that make for a more neutral internet?
We must seek information and content from diverse news publications and public figures. With that said, the ideal technological solution to the filter bubble problem would be a system that is able to deliver content from these entities, without limiting the sources that we see content from.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve done some research, and compiled a few tools that might, perhaps — just do the trick.
Flipboard, MyFeed, and some parts of Twitter
Flipboard has become a household name in the news industry over the past few years. They recently eclipsed the 150M+ monthly user mark, in part due to their personalized news curation and their sleek app UI and UX.
Using a combination of human editorial curation and algorithmic news scraping, Flipboard is able to display a diverse feed of bite-size news stories for users based on their interests. This feature is both my favorite aspect of the app, but also their biggest weakness when it comes to the filter bubble. While it is nice to have concise, bite-size stories to read, sometimes I feel as though I’m missing out on other perspectives on the same news story.
A newcomer to the news/media game is a company in Los Angeles that I’ve been hearing about called MyFeed, but they’re not even released yet. The reason they made this list is because of the unique way that their app is attempting to solve the filter bubble problem.
MyFeed is intriguing because their platform focuses on who is trending, rather than what is trending, and they use a “dynamic algorithm” to rank public figures who are being talked about online. The demo video on their website shows that as a user, we can select many different interests and sub-interests, and using this data, they curate a “Social Media and News Feed” for each user, every day.
While it remains to be seen how effective their algorithm is at solving the filter bubble — one thing is for sure — I definitely want to try it when it comes out! The downside to MyFeed is that their content is solely centered around people rather than things. However, their company is in the very early stages and I’m excited to see where they go.
A tech giant that needs no introduction is Twitter. However, the recent advances in their user experience make them a noteworthy addition to this list. Yes, we all know that Twitter is “where news breaks”, but it’s also where millions of people talk about news, daily happenings and of course, share their opinions.
The more interesting features are recent additions to Twitter’s experience. They recently allowed users to control their newsfeed so as to enable algorithmic or chronological viewing — something that Instagram’s users have been asking for. Twitter also does something that no other social media does — they show tweets from accounts that I don’t follow on my news feed — which helps expand my view of opinions that I see.
Maybe, in the end, it’s up to us to decide to expose ourselves to content from a wider array of sources, and then to engage with it.