Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Internet is a Toady

Confirmation Bias Confirmed

~ What is the Internet hiding? Eli Pariser pulls back the drapes in a thought-provoking TED talk of just under 10 minutes:

The key idea: most of the web sites and services we use do not provide us an unfiltered stream from the Internet. Much is hidden from us, and the implications are disturbing for a democracy that depends for its vitality on a generously informed electorate.

Today's news and information is a selective presentation, a subset of what's available, with significant content pared away. The web edits. As Pariser shows, Google does this, Facebook does this, Netflix does this, and most others are either doing it or moving in that direction.

Eli Pariser: the Internet Information BubbleThe result places each of us in our own, custom, information bubble. Whereas what information we consumed was once selected and presented by human newspaper and magazine editors, now our news diet is selected by algorithms which personalize without being personal.

Where a human being might bring other criteria to bear in selecting what to present, today's automated purveyors focus on "relevant results" and so omit much else: what we need to know, the provocative, the uncomfortable, the dangerous, deviant and defiant. The different. What are relevant results anyway? Relevant to whom, or to what?

As Bill Maher observed regarding the most recent English royal wedding, if Americans weren't so fascinated by it the media wouldn't be either. In truth, we get almost exactly what we request. Parisher tacitly admits this when he shows how Facebook edits his "Top News" stream to include predominately his liberal rather than his conservative friends. Facebook did so because the links he clicked were mostly from his left-leaning rather than right-leaning friends. Facebook knows what we click, not what our eyes linger upon. (Not yet anyway; that too is coming.) Its "Top News" is a clumsy crock of ill-judged conjecture and every time it shunts me back there I switch promptly to "Most Recent" which lets me see everyone, even those whom I read without always interacting.

In the early days of the Internet many became excited by the prospect of information democratization. The big print press editors would lose relevance and we could find information and opinion on anything and everything. So we thought, and so we can, if we but make the effort. Most people, however, have gravitated instead to self-selected news feeds and selective opinions highly aligned with their own. Confirmation bias, the seeking and selection of information that supports only existing views, is an easy, nigh unconscious, default. While a broader universe of viewpoints is increasingly available on the Internet, most consume an ever-narrower and ever-more highly aligned subset.

While dominant web portals employ sophisticated algorithms to tailor what information we receive, we both pick those sites and choose how to use them. Other information is out there, waiting for us, but it requires our active, deliberate effort. By lapsing into a passive mode of news reception, we cede agency to someone (or something) else to do the selecting for us.

Yes, the Internet is hiding things from us, but we are complicit in the hiding.

(h/t Tye Scott Rogerson)

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