Shaking Off the Shackles
* * * * * * * * *
As I scrolled through Facebook about a week ago, something caught my attention. It wasn’t the ads that seem to have taken over my newsfeed. It was a little statement in blue below a news article that a friend had linked to that read, “Click here to read more articles from ___________.”
Here we are almost 2 years after Eli Pariser’s Beware Online Filter Bubbles TED Talk was first posted online and the personalized web is so ubiquitous and pervasive that it took one little line to both call my attention to a personalization option while, at the same time, making me wonder if Facebook was giving me the tools to break out of my filter bubble.
Despite their age in this time of frantic change, so many of Eli Pariser’s statements, claims, and pleas still ring true. We live in an age of immense digital and real-world personalization. Burger King says to us, “Have it your way!” We expect to have OUR music, OUR videos, OUR apps at our fingertips on our smartphones. Starbucks has transformed the entire coffee culture with the green boxes on their cup allowing the ultimate personalized order. Our news is tailored to our liking.
Pariser asks us to think about the costs of the “web of one.” With the specific tailoring that comes of our own favorites sites and sources, but also with the computer-generated algorithms, comes a world in which our focus is narrowed to what the Internet “thinks we want to see, but not necessarily to what we need to see.” As Pariser states, we “don’t see what gets edited out.” This is incredibly detrimental to our ideals of being well-informed citizens of a “functional democracy.” How can we be well-informed if we aren’t even seeing the vast majority of the information?
We need to not be contained in an information bubble of an algorithm’s making. We need a balanced diet of information coming in from a variety of sources. We need our information vegetables as well as our information desserts. Pariser calls to the engineers of the world’s largest digital companies, many of them sitting in his TED Talk, to instill journalistic ethics into the algorithms. He pleads that we need to see not only the relevant but also the “important, the uncomfortable, the challenging,” and, ultimately, “other points of view.”
With that statement in blue on my Facebook newsfeed, was Facebook heeding Pariser’s call to allow me to see what is getting filtered out? Or were they simply trying to personalize my experience even more?
My guess is the latter. Pariser’s 2-year-old cry to beware online filter bubbles appears to be going unheeded. It may even be worse than two years ago when Pariser challenged those sitting in that auditorium…and I have an ethical responsibility to make my students aware of that. Personalization, while providing numerous benefits, is also highly dangerous when it comes to getting a balanced view of the world. They need to truly embrace the adage, “There’s two sides to every story,” in their digital lives as well as in their personal lives. They need their “information vegetables” along with their “information desserts.” They need to see the relevant, the important, the uncomfortable, the challenging, and other points of view.
My students need guidance from their teachers and their librarians in this process of learning what a balanced diet looks like. They need voices to remind them that the other side of the story exists. They need to be empowered to actively seek out the truth. They need the tools to help them shake off the shackles of personalization to see a broad and, ultimately, a more accurate view of the world. It will be then that they become well-informed citizens of a functional democracy.
* * * * * * * * *
Pariser, Eli. “Beware Online Filter Bubbles.” Lecture. TED2011. Mar. 2011. TED. May 2011. Web. 26 Feb. 2013. <http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html>.