Omphaloskepsis, Facebook, and the Filter Bubble

There’s something evocative about the boy in the bubble, isn’t there? Whether cloyingly portrayed by John Travolta, or childishly taunted over Trivial Pursuit by George Costanza (“I’m sorry, the answer we were looking for is moops”), the hermetically sealed child—or, rather, the idea of him—resonates. It was Peggy Noonan and William Safire who first conflated the plastic cage to the White House, and in so doing changed the emphasis of the construct. Originally, being “in the bubble” described a person who longs to connect to an existence he can observe but from which he is separated; Safire used it instead to describe someone who is separated from an existence to which he can no longer connect.

It’s this newer meaning that attaches to the Internet-related term “filter bubble,” which is the topic of one of this week’s readings for DPI 659. As Eli Pariser says, “What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But you don’t decide what gets in — and more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out.” Casual Web users may be alarmed to find that the Internet makes certain choices for us, which Eli’s TED talk illustrates by comparing two friends’ identical Google searches, and the different results they obtain. “Algorithms curate the world for us,” he says.

But in the real world, curators curate the world for us, so what’s the worry? Newspaper editors determine what we see in their papers, legislators make our laws with minimal public input, and, above all, our own schemata determine how we sort our experiential existence. Each of these operates as much by what is excluded as what is embraced. Despite that, we manage to interact with the world in ways that belie these blinders. Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties,” forty years old but still fresh, acknowledges mankind’s homophily but nevertheless focuses on the eponymous weak ties that complement the strong ones. Rather than deemphasizing these weak ties, networks like Facebook have made them all the more ubiquitous. As Christakis and Fowler note in Connected, another of this week’s readings, it’s “The Same but Different.”

The truth is, dire prognostications about Internet navel gazing have been made for years, and not much has come of them. Noted thinker Cass Sunstein has made a cottage industry out of such alarums: his 2001 book, Republic.com, he bemoans the degree to which Internet users close themselves off to intellectual challenge or contradiction, to the detriment of democracy. Ten years later he’s still at it, raising hue and cry that the feedback loop of political outrage in chatrooms threatens the Republic itself. In the meantime, few of us have morphed into hikikomori (or their savant cousins, the otaku).

Agoraphobes and hermits fascinate and horrify social cultures, and there’s something about the solipsistic qualities of social networks that causes the same mesmerized revulsion. Perhaps it’s a head-shaking disbelief that digital connections constitute real-life contact; perhaps it’s the concern that Internet users hear only what they want to hear; perhaps it’s the false perfection that glazes some online personas. As social networks have exploded during the past half-decade, their rise has caused paroxysms of handwringing. (Social networking isn’t all that new, of course. In 1994, my friend James Gwertzman invented Facebook a decade before M.Z.—a Harvard professor says so!) But does the Internet, whether via human proclivity or corporate algorithm, really enforce an inescapable echo chamber? Has the filter bubble actually aggravated partisanship to the point of stagnating political discourse?

Well, the news isn’t nearly so dire. In a study of Facebook users, Center of Atention: How Facebook Users Allocate Attention Across Friends, Eytan Bakshy and his coauthors show that polarization isn’t really the clear endgame. They observe that “the fraction of attention to users’ top k contacts, f(k), decreases as a function of activity when averaged over all individuals.” In other words, the more time you spend in online social media venues, the wider your circle of friends, not vice versa.

Far and away, the Web has expanded our expectations and broadened our horizons. In the pre-Internet era, the availability of data and the egocentric network could be compared to a reliable but underpressured water fountain in some city park. Unregulated, the Internet is like the hydrant knocked over by a car chase. If Google et al have managed to funnel that into a strong-but-manageable garden hose, there’s still a significant net gain. And that’s fine by me.

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