Who will feed me my vegetables?

Here’s a snippet from a post imagining a news aggregator built into Facebook, which the author refers to as “inevitable”:

Suddenly, Facebook will funnel news to you from a variety of sources based on data it already knows about you and your friends. Whereas Google News (theoretically) knows little about you until you personalize it, Facebook knows your demographic, your interests, stories and pages you’ve liked, your friends and news they’ve read, liked and commented on.

From the perspective of the user, the potential benefits are obvious.  If Facebook can determine from your profile, your friendships and your conversations that you want to read news items about digital music, cars and technology startups it can save you the time and effort required to customize a news diet as you would through Google News or Google Reader.

But what about the negatives?

Readers won’t realize they’re consuming news from an echo chamber designed by Facebook’s feed algorithm.

This might not matter for certain types of news items, but it matters a lot for others.  Consider politics.  Facebook knows I self-designate as “liberal”.  They know I’m a “fan” of Barack Obama and the Times’ Nick Kristof.  They can see I’m more likely to “like” stories from liberal outlets.

So what kind of political news stories will they send my way?  If the algorithm’s aim is merely to feed me stories I will like then it’s not hard to imagine the feed becoming an echo chamber.

Imagine if Facebook were designing an algorithm to deliver food instead of news.  It wouldn’t be hard to determine the kind of food I enjoy, but if the goal is just to feed me what I like I’d be in trouble.  I’d eat nothing but pizza, burgers and fries.

You might argue that a sophisticated algorithm could identify what we could call “second-order desires”, like wanting eat healthy or wanting to read balanced news coverage.

Perhaps.  But human will power is weak.  Just as we’re bad at sticking to our diets, we’re bad at seeking out perspectives with which we disagree.

For the sake of the public sphere, we need news diets that insist on feeding us our vegetables.