The “Filter Bubble” is a result of a phenomenon where an automated algorithm selectively guesses what kind of information a user would like to see based on the information about the user. What are its origins, what are the implications, and how can you escape the filter bubble?
Origin Filter Bubble
In the newspaper era, senior newspaper editors would decide what we would and would not read. Whether we liked it or not, journalism ethics (hopefully) meant we would absorb information covering a mix of relevant, important, uncomfortable, challenging and balanced points of view. In the “Internet era,” personal preference combined with search algorithms decide which information reaches us. This was needed due to the explosion of information on the internet. In September 2014 the total number of websites on the Internet surpassed the magical number of one billion. You read that correctly: one billion (1,000,000,000) websites on the Internet. That’s one website for every seven people on earth; and it’s growing fast. As of January 2015 we’re almost at 1.2 billion websites. To put things into perspective, there were 2.4 million websites in 1998, the year Google went live, and a mere 2,738 websites in 1994, when “Jerry and David’s guide to the World Wide Web” (later known as Yahoo!) was published. That means that at the beginning of 2015 there are almost 1.2 billion websites more than in 2000.
To cope with these exponential numbers, sophisticated algorithms were developed to automatically (and quite successfully) filter our search results. These algorithms were programmed to learn about you and track your personal preferences. In doing so, they collect as much information about you as possible. This information is subsequently used to tailor your search results when using the search engine, without you asking for it. For example, if you were to search for Egypt and you had a search history of traveling, your results will be very different from somebody who’s had a search history of journalism.
Effects of Filter Bubble: internet privacy
Tailored search results sound ideal but you don’t realise that the internet is beginning to hide information from you. As a result, algorithm-based search has brought about an unforeseen problem: our information diversity is decreasing rapidly and it interferes with the universal availability of information. We now choose what we will and will not read. We now decide which information reaches us. And in this, we receive a helping hand from “personalised search.” The more we click on certain topics, the more we get served those familiar topics. Have you noticed your (Facebook) news stream becoming steadily more homogenous? Or that the more cat movies you watch on YouTube, the more cat movies are suggested to you? Things we don’t interact with are simply filtered away until we are effectively left in a bubble. This is your personal filter bubble in action. Below you can find some videos about the filter bubble.
Escaping the filter bubble: empower internet privacy
Can you escape the filter bubble? Yes, if you use the internet completely anonymously. In order for this to happen, strong government regulation would be required to safeguard our privacy. However, with influential companies like Facebook and Google’s business models being all about targeting relevant ads to their users, it doesn’t look like this will happen any time soon. As such, it currently doesn’t look like you can completely escape your filter bubble… However, there are few ways to decrease the size of it. The most effective ways involve reducing the amount of information you provide to search algorithms and luckily there are some practical steps you can take to do this. Below you find a list of resources about escaping the filter bubble.
In the end, I believe it is extremely important for all of us to be aware of how we are affected by the filter bubble phenomenon. Only when we start realising it and know about its consequences can we start taking action to escape our tailor-made filter bubbles.