Review: The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read and How We Think

Pariser, Eli.   The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read and How We Thin.   Penguin Books, 2012, 304 pp.

Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read and How We Thin. Penguin Books, 2012, 304 pp.

Eli Pariser wrote The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read and How We Think to explore a deceptively simple business strategy: when Google returns search results, even for the exact same query, no one sees the exact same list.  Instead, Google uses algorithms and collected data to tailor search results to individual interests.  In fact, search results, recommendations from websites like Amazon or Netflix, and even the advertisements at the edge of the screen are all personalized based on collected traceable data we create simply by using what the internet has to offer. Now that the algorithms at the foundation of the web are sufficiently sophisticated, computers may know us better than we know ourselves. The Internet possesses the ability to use collected data to curate information. Information has always had to pass through a type of gatekeeper and this is still true in the age of the internet.  When physical newspapers were a primary source of information an editorial board had curatorial power in deciding what was front-page worthy. Editors had to make that choice with the knowledge that they also had to attract a majority of readers to be a profitable business. Pariser makes a distinction between the humans who decide what the daily headline will be and invisible algorithms that have taken the place of the editorial board by deciding what our top results are in a Google search and what advertisements line the sides of our favorite web pages.  Information sources no longer have to appeal to a general audience.  They have been given the power to pinpoint interests and give everyone something tailored specific to those interests. Pariser calls this phenomenon the filter bubble.

As convenient as it is to no longer have to scan the front page before digging through a newspaper in search of the comics, Pariser is alarmed that we can now bypass the front page completely. The filter bubble is our individual world of information. Inside it, we are more likely to see items similar to past items we have shown interest in whether that is the latest FIFA scores, French wines, or stock prices. But if we are likely to only see information related to our interests, our views can become narrowed. The filter bubble may bar us from stepping outside of our usual interests and from there Pariser argues that a lack of serendipity leads to a critical loss in creativity and problem solving.  Considering that most patrons of the internet are not aware that the filter bubble exists, most won’t make an effort to expand beyond what is comfortable or relatively near.  That means we me may miss out on the odd, occurring seemingly by chance, eureka moments that come from finding information in an unexpected source. 

Pariser also argues that the filter bubble shows us what we want to see, but not always what we should see. Although we should read  the important and complex but less flashy stories involving international or controversial issues, the latest Kardashian display or the state of Tom Cruise’s marriage is equally if not more enticing in its simplicity. Since living in the filter bubble means being presented with information we have shown past interest in, the more we consume simple, flashy stories, the fewer complex stories with important information for our duties as citizens are within our online eyesight for consumption. Further, we may become limited to the ideologies we most identify with, denying ourselves the opportunity to broaden our understanding by brushing up against different points of view. The filter bubble may give us too much of what we want and not enough of what we need in terms of information rationing. The most important stories that should be general knowledge become easier to skip when what is easy, familiar, or entertaining is pushed to the front by an impersonal algorithm reacting to collective data based on our actual habits rather than what we all feel should be important.

The Filter Bubble is a one sided story. Pariser spends the bulk of the narrative expounding the negative effects of personalization. Although he does pull back from any Luddite tendencies to immediately stop using services provided by online giants Google, Netflix, or Amazon, Pariser’s argument is not balanced between the positive and negative aspects of the filter bubble.  After all, it is convenient to have the information one is most likely to want to appear at the top of the page without having to wade through information overload. Consumers are more likely to positively respond to advertisements that relate to things they actually use.  Pariser does not deny this, but he seems to accept it reluctantly with the caveat that the filter bubble needs careful management and scrutiny. The style is also occasionally fragmented, taking on the feel of a collection of essays rather than a cohesive book-length argument.

Pariser’s ultimate conclusion is as broad and far reaching as the subjects of each chapter, though his conclusions are still simple, pragmatic, and directly in line with his findings.  Pariser calls on individuals, companies, and the government to take steps to manage the effects of the filter bubble.  He calls on individuals to recognize the existence of a filter bubble and to take that into account when using the Internet.  Pariser asks individuals to widen their scope of interest to allow for serendipity and occasionally add data that causes algorithms to adjust what is most likely to come up first.  We can do this by jumping away from our usual websites and routines to seek out information on subjects we don’t usually run across.  He asks companies for greater transparency in how personal data is used to personalize the web. Pariser also throws in his support for a Do Not Track list similar to the Do Not Call list already in place. Because Pariser accepts that personalization, however worrisome, is here to stay he instead focuses his energies on how to best manage the effects of the filter bubble.

Academic readers immersed in current sources may see nothing new in Pariser’s subject matter including typical subjects of scrutiny such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Pariser is not exactly mining new material, but the general audience this book is intended for will find a contextualized understanding of much publicized privacy concerns and the less publicized but perhaps more important algorithms that curate our information sources. Students being introduced to the scholarly study of the future of the Internet will find a well researched and documented study of personalization in an engaging format that serves well as a jumping off point to further study.  

For the field of media and politics, Pariser does examine targeted political ads that have the potential to allow candidates to become chameleons in their appeal.  For instance, supporters of a single issue may not see political ads about anything except that single issue, allowing the candidate to directly appeal to each voter as the voter wants to see the candidate.  However, politics is not a central theme, not even meriting a full chapter. Pariser takes a non-traditional approach by focusing on the more general and wide reaching implications of living in the filter bubble that retains relevancy since information consumption relates to the ability to be a fully informed citizen.  The subjects of The Filter Bubble are relevant for the world of politics, but it is not an explicit focus of the book.  

Pariser cares deeply about the effects of the filter bubble and that passion results in a well-reasoned argument for awareness and action.  In a world where eschewing services provided by internet giants like Google or Amazon means losing valuable resources, the only course of action as Pariser sees it is to continue to be aware of the effect of their algorithms to curate our internet experiences.   For Pariser, being aware might just be the ultimate duty of the informed citizen.


Editor's Note:

You can read more about The Filter Bubble on Eli Pariser's website, which includes his Ted Talk, and his tips on how to get out of the bubble.