Living in our own filter bubbles
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“What does a fish know about the water in which he swims all his life?” A thought-provoking question, from Albert Einstein’s Out of My Later Years, that brings attention to the notion that our personal normal is the normal of the whole. In other words, it implies the lack of a larger perspective. Today, many of us are fish. And the water in which we live is referred to as our filter bubble.
What are filter bubbles?
Filter bubbles, also known as echo chambers, are used to describe the tailored information individuals see online. This concept was largely introduced by digital activist, Eli Pariser, in his book, The Filter Bubble, and corresponding TED talk, “Beware online filter bubbles”. Pariser defines these bubbles as “… your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. And what’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But the thing is that you don’t decide what gets in. And more importantly, you don’t actually see what gets edited out.”
How do they form?
Filter bubbles tend to form for two main reasons.
- There is a natural human inclination to surround ourselves with other like-minded individuals and content that supports our predetermined opinions and beliefs.
- The digital ecosystem uses algorithms for personalization purposes that can knowingly and unknowingly feed into an individual’s biases.
In regard to the former, we all do this. As the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together. We submerse ourselves in social circles, both online and offline, that share similar thoughts and opinions as our own. Unfortunately, this predisposition can create a rather small and biased worldview. As a result, we begin to assume that our perspective is the only one that exists. Pariser expands upon this idea, stating:
“The filter bubble tends to dramatically amplify confirmation bias—in a way, it’s designed to. Consuming information that conforms to our ideas of the world is easy and pleasurable; consuming information that challenges us to think in new ways or question our assumptions is frustrating and difficult.”
Social media has made it easier than ever to find and align ourselves with people that agree with us. If we see information that goes against our personal views, instead of considering another perspective, we can unfollow, unfriend, or unsubscribe with a simple click.
Moving on to the latter, and perhaps most prevalent, reason behind filter bubbles, the digital landscape has evolved to gather information about users in order to tailor their entire online experience. This is something we talk about often. Almost everything we do online is being monitored. Search engines, social platforms, and data aggregators collect information about our clicks, shares, browsing history, demographics, etc.. This information is then used to target ads, news, and other content to specific audiences that are most likely to be receptive and complete a desired action. However, this personalization only further immerses individuals into their own universe of information. In his book, Pariser describes this process like this:
“Most personalized filters are based on a three-step model. First, you figure out who people are and what they like. Then, you provide them with content and services that best fit them. Finally, you tune to get the fit just right. Your identity shapes your media. There’s just one flaw in this logic: Media also shape identity. And as a result, these services may end up creating a good fit between you and your media by changing … you.”
Pop the bubbles
These two overarching drivers of filter bubbles and echo chambers often go unnoticed. They work subconsciously and are hidden behind the algorithms built into online search, news, and social media outlets. Without proper awareness and education on this issue, people will continue to live in ignorance, believing that what they see online is the same thing everyone else sees. Their one-sided bubbles will continue to polarize opinions and reinforce biases.
We can’t control all the factors that contribute to our personal filter bubbles, but there are a few easy ways to obtain a more well-rounded world of information.
- Try to use less-biased sources of information that offer multiple perspectives or consider using two opposing sources in a balanced way. This includes news sites, blog, podcasts, etc..
- Resist the urge to remove everyone from your social media feeds that disagrees with your views. Expose yourself to a variety of thoughts and opinions and consider other perspectives.
- Periodically clear your search history and avoid logging into/using accounts when it is unnecessary. This will help limit the information that becomes tied to your personal profile.
- Block cookies and online trackers to limit the amount of information being collected about you in the background of your browsers and apps. Ghostery Midnight intercepts and blocks trackers to protect your entire device. It also includes a built-in VPN for an additional layer of anonymity, which would further support your efforts of popping your filter bubble.
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