Filter Bubble Book Review

The Filter Bubble is a new book by Eli Pariser that addresses the subject of how personalization of sites like Google and Facebook are sheltering us from information that doesn’t agree with our world view. Instead of the Internet being a window to new experiences and viewpoints, it becomes a mirror, reflecting back only what we already believe.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I will state that I was given a review copy of this book, but it didn’t influence my opinion of the book.

Eli Parsier gave a 9 minute talk at a recent Ted Conference. If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend watching it.

I haven’t been a fan of Google’s personalized search and have written a few posts on it in the past (see Serendipity … It’s What’s Missing From Personalized Search, Personalized Google News – Will That be on the Test, and Eric Schmidt, The Wall Street Journal and Personalized Search). This book took a lot of my arguments to the next level. For example a search for [solar energy] could bring up entirely different results based on your personalization history. If you read a lot of “green” Eco friendly content, your Google search results will give you links that match your viewpoint and not a more rounded out set of links showing both the pros and cons of solar energy.

I think it would be fair to say that, due to my profession, I have a pretty well informed opinion about personalized results. One of the things I wondered was would I learn anything new from this book? I can say I was pleasantly surprised. For example, we all know that the free gmail product is subsidized by the ads. The ads they show you are based on the content of your email messages or, more often (and more annoyingly), by retargeting. However what this book brought up was that the real point of gmail was so Google could learn more about you, what you read, what you like/dislike and click to build up a better profile of you and serve you better ads. Below is an example of what Google thinks I like (kinda scary, huh?):

What Google Thinks I like

While it’s easy to point fingers at Google, Facebook is just as guilty, and they are a lot less transparent about personalization and edge rank. Unless you have a very small number of friends on Facebook, your news stream is filtered, showing you very popular content, content from your friends you visit/click the most, and content from pages you like/interact with. If you have friends with differing viewpoints and read their links/updates but don’t click them, eventually Facebook will stop showing you updates from those people. Since more and more people are getting their news primarily from Facebook, this again creates a distorted view of the world.

Studies have shown that readers want all the news and don’t want it tailored to them, but Google and Facebook have a financial incentive to do the opposite.

I know some Googlers were in the audience at the Ted conference, and I know some of them read this blog. I also know that, like Marissa Mayer, “they just don’t think of it that way”; they are just giving us what we want. However, as any parent can tell you, if you give your kid what they want, you’ll end up with a fat kid who eats nothing but McDonald’s chicken nuggets and Kraft macaroni and cheese. As a parent, it’s our job to find a way to get some broccoli into their diet. Since Google and Facebook are the leading forces on the Internet, it’s their job to find a way to make sure we see that “information broccoli.”

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by this book. Looking at the cover and the brief writeups, I knew I was going to agree with a lot of what the author had to say. What I didn’t expect was to learn as much as as I did and how the situation is actually a lot scarier than I believed. If you work in search/internet marketing and want to get a better understanding of the effects of personalization, you’ll like and probably learn from this book. If you work in a technology-related publishing job, this is a book that will hopefully make you think about the bigger picture and the dangers of page view journalism.

This is a book I recommend if you are looking for a book that will make you think and question how the news we read and consume is vastly different than it was 10 years ago when Google news was invented.

Buy Filter Bubble on Amazon

photo credit: Shutterstock, Photospin

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