The development of the World Wide Web inspired the kind of utopian dreaming that often accompanies technological revolutions. In the 1990s, it seemed to many pundits that a perfected democracy, unbridled freedom, and the end of authority were right around the corner. In his introduction to The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You, Eli Pariser, former executive director of MoveOn, recalls his own dreams: “To my preteen self, it seemed clear that the Internet was going to democratize the world, connecting us with better information and the power to act on it.” (p. 3)
Nearly twenty years hence, Pariser is much more cautious about the promise of the Internet. In The Filter Bubble, he addresses a development that seems to be turning the promise of unfiltered access to information on its head. The filter bubble is Pariser’s term for the rapidly advancing wave of online personalization that serves to isolate individuals and groups in information bubbles. Led by the likes of Google, Amazon, and Facebook—but becoming fairly ubiquitous online—the filter bubble limits information access by personalizing search results, advertisements, and websites. Much of this personalization is done without the knowledge of users, who are unaware of how their personal information is being used and what kinds of online information they might be missing.
In a TED Talk given around the time of the publication of The Filter Bubble, Pariser gave an illustration of how the filter bubble works. In the midst of the spring 2011 political protests in Egypt, he asked two friends to do a search in Google for “Egypt.” One got a lot of information on the protests (not surprisingly), while the other got information on tourism in Egypt. Instead of this search providing results based on some objective, universally valid criteria—like PageRank in Google’s early days—it was personalized to each user. Reflecting this search philosophy, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said that, ‘“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”’ (p. 1) People get different results from the same search, depending on what a search algorithm determines to be their individual interests and preferences. Perhaps touring the Nile and a dying squirrel might be more important to certain individuals at any one time than the fate of Africa. Is this the way we should organize Internet searching?
Personalization is not new, and other people have written about its dangers, like Cass Sunstein in Republic.com (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001). But The Filter Bubble is an up-to-date and particularly readable account that focuses on the pernicious influence of increasingly narrow information habitats on the life of democracy. For instance, what happens to civic life when there are no common sources of information like the newspapers and magazines of the mass media era? Democracy depends not only on an informed populace, but also on some common source of facts, arguments, and understanding. Without these, it is hard to communicate ideas and engage politically with fellow citizens.
On the other hand, the benefits of personalization in terms of advertising revenue are clear. The more precisely web sites can target consumers based on individualized preferences, the more money they can charge for advertising. Think of all the different kinds of people that used to read daily newspapers, representing a socioeconomic, racial, and cultural mix that must have given advertisers fits. If you advertised fancy suits, much of your audience might be looking for casual clothes. If you advertised casinos in Atlantic City, you also paid to advertise to those looking for weekend camping trips. Online personalization allows advertisers to segment advertising markets in ways that were impossible during the days of mass media. Web sites can display personalized web pages and advertisements to each and every user.
So will the Internet continue to follow the path of personalization and become a mere “delivery device” for advertising revenue, or can something be done to recover the original public spiritedness of the Internet’s early advocates? In The Filter Bubble’s last chapter, Pariser offers advice to citizens, companies, and government, which is a combination...