Eli Pariser, the young man who co-founded MoveOn.org, is getting a fair amount of
attention with his new book “The
Filter Bubble.” In the book, he asserts (repeatedly, I might add) that
the attempts by software giants like Google and Facebook to personalize our
Internet experience by serving up more and more accurate representations of
what we want might be impoverishing rather than enriching that experience.
The book comes out at a time when many other attempts to
deal with information overload are also in our lives–everything from The
Huffington Post, to Paper.li, to Flipboard, Zite,
DataSift, or even Netflix.
Everyone seems to think we want to see less, rather than
more, information. And they are exploring more and more different ways to
filter what we see. I’m not so sure.
Steve Rosenbaum, author of Curation Nation and himself a
curator of video at Magnify.net, maintains that curation surfaces the
“long tail” of content that is worthy but might never be seen.
Rosenbaum studied the filtering phenomenon by interviewing 75 experts, and is
of the opinion that the acceptance of curators, while still controversial, is
becoming more common as our information overload gets worse.
Still, today’s filters are a far cry both from the time when
we accepted the mainstream media as our curators or from the early days of the
World Wide Web, when we “surfed” the net for hours, enamored with the
sheer process of discovery, each seeking to curate for herself.
Google was probably the most responsible for engineering the
change in our habits by training us to go out more purposefully to search for
specific information. As our Google searches get more accurate and more
personalized, we see more and more of what we “want” and less and
less of what’s just “out there.” Not too long ago, we found out that
no two people get the same results when they search for terms on Google.
Results may vary by location, by your search history, and by what else Google
knows about you. Google is proud of its personalized search, and even more
proud of Google Instant, which fills in your search as you type, based on
Google’s previous data about your interests.
To Pariser this is bad because it is limiting. On the other hand, Paper.li’s founder,
Edouard Lambelet agrees with Rosenbaum that it’s liberating, but for different
reasons. Rosenbaum wants to do it for you, helping you discover. Lambelet makes
a tool to let you do it yourself. You can see that the conversation on this
potentially controversial subject is all over the map right now.
Pariser calls it “stuck in the You Loop,” when
everything you read reflects your own values, thoughts, and point of view. At
its exaggerated worst, the You Loop is a form of censorship, because you are
effectively prevented from seeing something in the same way the Chinese
government blacks out negative stories about China on CNN.
Naturally, the creators of many of the new curation tools
think Pariser is wrong about the dangers of curation. Curation, says Edouard Lambelet, is best when
it reflects your interest graph and leads you to more people who share that
interest from whom you can learn, and only fails when it relies too much on
your social graph (your friends), who may not share all your interests. And
Google, Lambelet maintains, isn’t really curation because it still returns too
many untrustworthy results.
I maintain that the jury will be out on this one for a long
time, especially since the underlying question is one of how much individual
freedom we want to sacrifice to an algorithm, no matter how accurate. As we
approach what some think of as “the Singularity,” things begin to remind me
more and more of dystopian science fiction.