Defined by the Filter Bubble
Zuckerberg, Dorsey, and other social media giants will be remembered, not by their business successes, but by how well they tackle the problem of the filter bubble.
In 2011 the highly experienced and successful digital activist Eli Pariser published the book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You. In it he set out a problem: as the media we consume becomes more and more personalized to our tastes and desires, the less we are exposed to people and ideas that we disagree with. The net effect is a weakening of bonds that keep our societies tolerably bound together, and a lessening of our ability to come together around challenges that may require us to compromise with others with whom we don’t see eye to eye. He named this the problem the filter bubble.
Eli’s book was published several years ago now, and many of you reading this will sigh at the thought of another retreading of the same issues. But we live in the era of both Brexit and Trump, and so the issue has recently taken on a visceral flavor that it perhaps lacked even six months ago.
A British Perspective
I live in the U.K., and in case you’ve been sleeping in a cave recently, 52 percent of my compatriots voted to leave the European Union last week.
For those of us who live on these islands, the last few months have been an intense media blitz, even by general elections standards. Throughout it all, though, the filter bubble was clearly in operation, and before the vote I had numerous conversations with people who expressed their own concerns about how little in the way of opposing views and arguments was making it through into their social media feeds.
The day after the result I decided to fire up Facebook to actively go hunting outside my social networks to see what the victorious leavers were saying: I guess I wanted to spectate on their celebrations, see what was making them excited. I then saw something that made me write the following:
Now, I’m not exactly a big fish on social media, but this lone tweet has picked up 800,000 impressions so far. It has clearly resonated in a big way. Much of the feedback has been supportive, although some of it has been fairly critical of my search skills (to respond to that I’ve put up a post about my use of search since it’s not really the key issue here).
As I meditated on the curious spread of this idea over the weekend, a thought crossed my mind: if research in the decade ahead shows more concretely that there is a connection between social media filter bubbles and political behavior (and it is still early days in this regard) then it could have enormous consequences for the long term reputations of the figureheads of the social media world. The filter bubble could, in fact, become of defining importance of the legacies of Silicon Valley’s superstars.
Generally I think tech leaders aspire to be thought of alongside people who developed and scaled up technologies that were unarguably brilliant things for humanity. They hope to be listed next to Edison (lightbulbs), Fleming (penicillin), Marconi (radio).
But there’s always a danger in being involved in an epic business success. There’s a danger that instead of being next to Edison you’ll be remembered alongside Alfred Nobel (TNT) or Othmar Zeidler (DDT) or Thomas Midgley (CFC refrigerants) as a person who truly, honestly thought they were bringing truly great things to humanity, but whose legacy turned out to be unimaginably darker than they had hoped.
Now I don’t know to what extent the filter bubble shifted the vote in the U.K.’s recent referendum—I hope that someone cleverer than me is allowed to do some real research with the data that would test that hypothesis—but I do see a world that’s polarizing and tearing itself up on a hundred fronts. And yes, it’s easy to say that this is obviously all about changes to the economy, or one religious sect versus another, or land or water, and it’s also easy to say that it’s stupid to even suggest that social media companies have a big impact when such huge motivating factors are at stake.
But if you work for a social media company, or you own shares in one, you shouldn’t use these obvious truths as an excuse to do nothing about the filter bubble. Because you can’t do anything about those land disputes, or the water disputes or the economic dislocations, but you can do something about the filter bubble; it is within your power. You can trial and test methods for exposing people to uncomfortable information until you find approaches that don’t make people want to leave your platforms in droves. You can share information about the state of the filter bubble problem frankly and openly with the global tech and research community so we can all try to develop solutions together. And yes, I’m aware from conversations with people in social media companies that the engineering problems around the filter bubble are bitterly hard, I get that. But that has never scared you before, so why start now?
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” said Abraham Lincoln. The people who run social media companies today have more power over the divisions in our national and international houses than almost anyone else alive. I hope they see that our fate, as well as their legacies, depend on taking action, now.
Endnote: You might find it strange that I don’t marshall a lot of evidence here about the extent of the filter bubble, and whether or not it really is a problem. My reason for omitting this is that I believe that the staff in the big social media companies actually already know what the filter bubble is and isn’t with far more accuracy than anyone outside possible can. The question is not do they know, the question is are they willing to act?