Monday, October 31, 2011

The Runaway Positive Feedback Loop of Personalization

A look at "The Filter Bubble", by Eli Pariser.


This book starts with the grand assertion that we're in the Era of Personalization, which started with an innocuous, cheerily-titled blog post called Personalized Search for Everyone (yay!) on the Official Google Blog. Innocuous it may have seemed, but according to search engine-meister Danny Sullivan, though he generally approves of search personalization, the post deserved more scrutiny than it got. This is because from that date (December 2009) even people who were not signed in to Google were having their search results tailored to them individually without knowing about it, courtesy of a cookie which tracked their recent searches.

So, one of the most celebrated web icons, one of the pillars of this new civilization, up there with Project Gutenberg, #hashtags and Hamster Dance - the Google search results page - is no longer something we can all agree on. This, I hope you agree, was indeed momentous.

But maybe you don't: you might in fact think this is this no big deal since some of the biggest sites on the web like Amazon, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+, have come to be defined by their very personalization. Once you've followed more than one or two people on Twitter, for example, especially if they're friends of yours, well - there won't be anyone else who sees exactly what you see when you log in. One way to look at what most people have been doing on the web for the past, say, 5 years, is to see them productively chiselling away at the universal monolith to sculpt their own personal statues of meaning. An undifferentiated, depersonalized web is a cold, lonely place.

Opaque Algorithmic Mashup

The problem however comes from two factors, according to Pariser: the filtering that's happening is often undetectable, and you didn't choose it. Unlike with Twitter, where your personalization comes from the people you've chosen to follow, Google's search results are the product of an opaque algorithmic mashup of dozens of signals you're not in charge of. One of these is location: your interests are supposed to change depending on where you are, which can be annoying but at least it's understandable and concrete. The others are so multifarious that not even the engineers who compile them can fully stay on top of them any more.

So how is this any different to everyday life where people hang around with like-minded friends, watch TV shows that are geared toward people like themselves, and avoid people they disagree with? It's not, but the internet was supposed to be different, according to Pariser. It's hard now to remember the idealism of the early days of the web. The growing skepticism towards Google, a company once universally hailed as an unambiguous force for good in the universe, a bona fide member of the Rebel Alliance, is a sign of the zeitgeist, albeit a self-serving one.

So here's a practical question I asked myself as I got further into the book: how had I found it in the first place? How did it penetrate my filter? Trace it back - how do you find out about a book?

A pleasant change of scene

I cast my mind back a couple of months, back to a cold Winter's morning on a bike path in Greenslopes on my way to work. Young mothers in lycra jogged and pushed prams, teenagers in boaters trudged reluctantly schoolwards, while I coasted through this scene, soothed all the while by the avuncular voice of amiable tech honcho Leo Laporte. He brought it up with Jeff Jarvis...and that's all I remember. I must have gotten distracted by a hot jogger, but I don't really remember what they said about it except ... that Jeff wasn't entirely convinced of the book's arguments. But no matter. It was in my bubble.

About two months later I came across it in my local library, remembered I'd heard about it on TWiG, and took it home to read. As far as that book was concerned, my filter bubble was permeable enough to let it in. Both of those two conduits: tech podcast and public library are not exactly subject to intense pressure from commercial interests to force personalization on us (even if they could), so I'm satisfied that they are sufficiently broad agents of aggregation as far as exposing me to new ideas is concerned.

This might all sound incredibly obvious, but it's worth comparing your local library with another potential source of new ideas: Amazon.com. I use both, but while my local library is likely to throw up books in my path that may confound, displease, provoke but ultimately enrich me, Amazon.com is locked into a runaway positive feedback loop, one where your every purchase, your every comment and click, means your choices are in some ways narrowing, even as the pool of available merchandise is ever expanding.

(Continued in my next post)