Popping the filter bubble

May 31, 2012

What’s the first image that pops into to your head when I say the word "Bubble"? Water? Champagne? Scuba Diving? House prices, the Economy? Whatever it was, my guess is it wasn’t "Democracy". And yet, in quite an ironic way, your choice is a great example of a newly defined "bubble" which potentially could have a profound effect on our understanding of the latter.

Whichever mental image sprang to mind when you thought of the word "Bubble" was not a random idea plucked from the ether, but in some ways conditioned by your preferences, your experiences and your current location. If I asked you this question when we are in an expensive restaurant supping Dom Perignon, or in an estate agents office or swimming in tropical seas, your answers would probably have been different each time.

OK – so what has this word association got to do with the concept of democracy? But before we get to that – let’s consider what the concept of press freedom has to do with democracy. Most people would accept that a functional free press is an indispensable part of a functioning democracy. The ability for ordinary citizens to ask questions, be exposed to different opinions, challenge facts and policies is a fundamental feature of a free society as most Westerners would understand it.  For the best part of 200 years, newspapers fulfilled this function. Now we have the internet, with its limitless capacity to connect us with different points of view and ideas. That’s got to be an improvement, right?

Well, it turns out it might not be thanks to a newly-identified phenomena called the "Filter Bubble". The argument goes that as our preferred internet destinations, Facebook, Google and now Twitter, are basing the information that they present us with on what they know about us, they are in effect creating a bubble around us – presenting us only with the things that, either by direct or implied choice, we have previously expressed an interest in. This is an invisible process, something that happens without you being aware of it – much like your unconscious choice of "Champagne" rather than "House Prices".

The originator of the Filter Bubble concept and author of a book by the same name is Eli Pariser. If you have some time to spare, watch his lecture at last year’s TED – thought provoking stuff.