Review by Jeff Swift, North Carolina State University
The Filter Bubble
The Penguin Press, 2011: 294 pp.
"The new Internet doesn’t just know you’re a dog;
it knows your breed and wants to sell you a bowl of premium kibble" (6).
Eli Pariser's exposure of search engine and social media "personalization" is a chilling look into the future of the internet. Pariser explores the implications of the ad revenue-induced personalization arms race happening online. Social networks and search giants, Pariser explains, are becoming more and more focused on shaping your online experience in such a way that you only see what you already want to see—after all, online advertising is based on clicks, and the best way to get you to click on an ad is to keep you on a page as long as possible.
Pariser views this obsession with personalization as a type of "invisible autopropaganda" (15), most dangerous because of our inability to see its effect on the information we see (and don’t see) online. Pariser begins his argument with a history of web personalization, looking at how Google, Amazon, and others have devoted their energy to provide the most relevant results, designing and employing personalization filters, to only show viewers what they want to see—a "Ptolemaic universe" where the universe revolves around the viewer.
The implication of this trend toward personalization is that we come in contact less frequently with ideas we don’t already have. And the ideas we do come into contact with are the ones we already want to see—no website is going to lead off with the "important but unpopular news" (73) out of some sort of civic responsibility. No, the companies that dominate the web are dedicated to giving the people what they want so that they can turn the biggest profit possible. As a result, Pariser argues, we are becoming an "Adderall society," jumping from one bit of information to the next while never encountering ideas that make us stop or question our beliefs.
One of the interesting problems of this rush to commodify our attention is that no two models are alike. Google, Pariser explains, builds an understanding about each of its users based on what they click on, how long they spend there, and dozens of other site-based metrics. Facebook, on the other hand, forms its opinion of its users based on what they share, where they comment, and with whom they associate. In short, each website stereotypes its users in order to provide precisely what those users want. Or, more specifically, what the website’s overly simplistic stereotype wants.
This cyber-stereotyping strikes a blow at the ability of citizens to engage opposing viewpoints in any given issue. Pariser, board president and former executive director of MoveOn.org, is particularly worried about the impact of this filtering on issues of political importance. After all, how can we know what our opponents are saying if their "ads are only targeted to white Jewish men between twenty-eight and thirty-four who have expressed a fondness for U2 on Facebook and who donated to Barack Obama’s campaign?" (155). While possibly a bit overblown—ads have never been particularly focused on debate or discussion—this worry becomes significant in a world where search giants and social networks shape much of what we read about online. Pariser famously describes the fact that Google’s search results are different based on who puts in the search terms—even if those terms are identical.
Pariser concludes the book by discussing the future of the filter bubble. He predicts endless personalization based on the terabytes of data ("big data") that advertising companies are continuously collecting about everyone online. Pariser includes advice for what individuals, companies, governments and citizens can do to help stem the tide of over-personalization of the Internet and over-commodification of digital identities. He specifically calls for "a new constituency of digital environmentalists" (242) to pressure companies and governments to adopt practices to put users back in control of their data and keep advertising companies out of the business of hiding things from you.
The Filter Bubble hints at the future of personalization, including trends of corporate data-gathering surveillance, product placement in media and in person, and the increasing ability to digitize and quantify every movement we make. The book, though, has untapped implications for societies reliant on all types of digital technology. Pariser's book moves toward and understanding of, but does not fully explore, a world where cell phones, credit cards, wrist watches, refrigerators, speedometers, and everything else digital will collaborate to expose each bit of data about their users to eager businesses and governments. And, in the digital world, Pariser concludes "everyone’s organized but the people" (242).
Jeff Swift is a PhD student at North Carolina State University’s Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program. His research interests include digital activism and rhetorical democracy, and he teaches courses in persuasive writing, argumentation, rhetorical theory, and digital satire.
© 2012 Jeff Swift, used by permission