We Control the Web More than the Web Controls Us

I tweeted a little while ago about The Economist’s review of Eli Pariser’s, The Filter Bubble:  What the Internet Is Hiding from You.  Pariser is a pretty big deal–definitely one of thought leaders about the internet.  You can read his TED profile here.  Pariser is of the view that the internet is–or should be–a socially transformative force.  He became alarmed, however, when he noticed that people of different political views received different results when entering the same search queries.  The story is that he noticed this when he noticed that his conservative friends started disappearing from his Facebook page.

In trying to give you want they think you want, online providers like Google, Amazon, Netflix and Pandora, have algorithms that guess at what you’d like.  Thus, you tend to see more and more of the things you already know you like.  The problem is that the main source of data for these algorithms is you, maybe your social network (made of people who are mostly like you), and, of course, some sort of relevant market.  Thus, these algorithms are very good at telling you what you like based on what you (and maybe your friends) already know you like.

Pariser’s concern is that these algorithms shield you from anything novel, different or challenging.  You encounter only what’s comfortable to you, to your friends, and to the general population.  Your internet experience is part of a kind of feedback loop, where your own viewpoints and desires are reinforced and hardened, not challenged or refined.  He calls these “filter bubbles.”  (I’ve heard this problem blamed as a source for the current extreme partisanship.)

Pariser is completely correct about this, although I didn’t realize that this filtering could proxy for political viewpoints.  (I haven’t noticed it myself, but Pariser is a more political figure than I am, so he has more political data points to work with.)

I think I understand his concern.  Back in  the early days of the World Wide Web, the internet was small and unfiltered.  To find things, you went to sites like Yahoo! that attempted to categorize the entire Web.  Keyword-based search engines were unreliable (remember AltaVista?), often hilariously so.  You often didn’t find what you expected and stumbled upon new, interesting and challenging things.  Heck, people would actually “surf the Web,” i.e., explore the Web.  You found that you liked things you didn’t know you liked.  You were a richer person for it.  They were heady times.

Then the WWW got crowded–and went from being big to being incomprehensibly big.  The category approach stopped working, and search had to take over.  Google (working originally for Yahoo!) figured out how to deliver consistently relevant results to search queries.  Even so, it took more and more time to have fun with the Web.  Most of the great innovations were directed to taming the burgeoning beast.  “Surfing the Web” became a dated term:  you were more likely to stumble on something vile than something enriching.  Using the web became more functional.  Entertainment was still a big part of the Web (obviously), but the act of using the Web stopped being entertaining.

Meanwhile, those early adopters of the WWW started getting full-time jobs and having families.  They didn’t have time to explore the Web.  To the contrary, the Web became a great way to get things done more quickly.  (You don’t need to call customer support during business hours to get basic information and wait on hold for 15 minutes.) At the same time, the new adopters never experienced the Web as an end-in-itself.  It has always been functional to them.

But Pariser’s concerns run deeper than that.  Back in the day, it seemed inevitable that the Web was going to change the world.  We were all suddenly connected with people you had never met before.  You could buy an item from some guy across the country (or overseas) on eBay, and read the musings of some other guy whose location is completely irrelevant to you–but whose ideas weren’t.  All this connectedness felt a lot like democracy.  The nice kind of democracy–you know, the open, tolerant, communicative, progressive kind.

Where did all this promise go?  People still try to see it in the role that social media is said to have played (and still be playing) in the Arab Spring uprisings.  Pariser, though, thinks the promise is being squelched by “filter bubbles.”  The internet is erecting subtle barriers when it should be breaking them down.

Is Pariser just nostalgic?  Is he just hearkening back to a moment–a unique mix of circumstances that won’t be repeated again?  The problem with disruptive forces is that they’re undirected.  I haven’t studied this, but perhaps, because the early adopters of the Web were young, they also tended to be progressive.  So, at first, the disruption caused by the Web was in line with progressive thinking, and their understanding of democracy.  Or perhaps it is generational, and the post-Boomers who first took to the Web saw it as a means of bridging the bitter cultural divides of the previous generation.  But, either way, they couldn’t keep it for themselves, and they couldn’t control it.  Others wanted to be on the Web, too.  Naturally enough, they used it for things that were consistent with their desires and beliefs.

Maybe the reason the Web seems so different now is not that it used to be unfiltered, but that the teenagers, college students and young professionals who used it were, by nature, more daring and more willing to be challenged.  They wanted life unfiltered, found the Web unfiltered, and they loved it.  The Web was like a portal to another world.  But they’ve grown up, and an unfiltered life is hard to live.  Those who came after saw the Web as nothing more than an exciting augmentation of what they already liked to do–and found other ways to challenge themselves.

Put another way, maybe people like their “filter bubbles.”  Maybe that’s why they’re using the Web in the first place.  Maybe Pariser is starting out from the wrong place, a concept of what the Web should be.  Maybe the Web shouldn’t be anything.

Maybe there’s an unfiltered Web out there somewhere.  If there is, I’d love to find it.  But I honestly don’t know if I have the time.