Initial thoughts on Eli Pariser

Eli Pariser, president of the board at, has a new book out called The Filter Bubble, and based on his recent NYT op-ed and some interviews he’s done I’m extremely excited to read it. Pariser hits on one of my pet issues: the danger of Facebook, Google, etc. personalizing our news feeds in a way that limits our exposure to news and analysis that challenges us. (I’ve written about that here, here, and here.) In this interview with Mashable he even uses the same metaphor of feeding users their vegetables!

The Filter Bubble - Eli Pariser

So, thus far my opinion of Pariser’s work is very high. But what kind of blogger would I be if I didn’t quibble? So here goes…

From the Mashable interview (Mashable in bold; Pariser non-bold):

Isn’t seeking out a diversity of information a personal responsibility? And haven’t citizens always lived in bubbles of their own making by watching a single news network or subscribing to a single newspaper?

There are a few important ways that the new filtering regime differs from the old one. First, it’s invisible — most people aren’t aware that their Google search results, Yahoo News links, or Facebook feed is being tailored in this way.

When you turn on Fox News, you know what the editing rule is — what kind of information is likely to get through and what kind is likely to be left out. But you don’t know who Google thinks you are or on what basis it’s editing your results, and therefore you don’t know what you’re missing.

I’m just not sure that this is true. I completely recognize the importance of algorithmic transparency, given the terrific power they have over our lives. But it’s not obvious to me that we’re living in a less transparent world. Do we really know more about how Fox’s process works than we do about how Google’s does? It seems to me that in each case we have a rough sketch of the primary factors that drive decisions, but in neither do we have perfect information.

But to me there is an important difference: Google knows how its process works better than Fox knows how its process works. Such is the nature of algorithmic decision-making. At least to the people who can see the algorithm, it’s quite easy to tell how the filter works. This seems fundamentally different than the Fox newsroom, where even those involved probably have imperfect knowledge about the filtering process.

Life offline might feel transparent, but I’m not sure it is. Back in November I wrote a post responding to The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal and a piece he’d written on algorithms and online dating. Here was my argument then:

Madrigal points out that dating algorithms are 1) not transparent and 2) can accelerate disturbing social phenomena, like racial inequity.

True enough, but is this any different from offline dating?  The social phenomena in question are presumably the result of the state of the offline world, so the issue then is primarily transparency.

Does offline dating foster transparency in a way online dating does not?  I’m not sure.  Think about the circumstances by which you might meet someone offline.  Perhaps a friend’s party.  How much information do you really have about the people you’re seeing?  You know a little, certainly.  Presumably they are all connected to the host in some way.  But beyond that, it’s not clear that you know much more than you do when you fire up OkCupid.  On what basis were they invited to the party?  Did the host consciously invite certain groups of friends and not others, based on who he or she thought would get along together?

Is it at least possible that, given the complexity of life, we are no more aware of the real-world “algorithms” that shape our lives?

So to conclude… I’m totally sympathetic to Pariser’s focus and can’t wait to read his book. I completely agree that we need to push for greater transparency with regard to the code and the algorithms that increasingly shape our lives. But I hesitate to call a secret algorithm less transparent than the offline world, simply because I’m not convinced anyone really understood how our offline filters worked either.


Google News: Trust the algorithm

I’ve written about the potential dangers of Google and Facebook using algorithms to recommend news, with the basic fear being that they’ll recommend stories that confirm my biases rather than “feed me my vegetables.” But Nieman Lab has an interview with the founder of Google News who has quite a different take on what he’s doing:

“Over time,” he replied, “I realized that there is value in the fact that individual editors have a point of view. If everybody tried to be super-objective, then you’d get a watered-down, bland discussion,” he notes. But “you actually benefit from the fact that each publication has its own style, it has its own point of view, and it can articulate a point of view very strongly.” Provided that perspective can be balanced with another — one that, basically, speaks for another audience — that kind of algorithmic objectivity allows for a more nuanced take on news stories than you’d get from individual editors trying, individually, to strike a balance. “You really want the most articulate and passionate people arguing both sides of the equation,” Bharat says. Then, technology can step in to smooth out the edges and locate consensus. ”From the synthesis of diametrically opposing points of view,” in other words, “you can get a better experience than requiring each of them to provide a completely balanced viewpoint.”“That is the opportunity that having an objective, algorithmic intermediary provides you,” Bharat says. “If you trust the algorithm to do a fair job and really share these viewpoints, then you can allow these viewpoints to be quite biased if they want to be.”

[emphasis from Nieman Lab]

A few thoughts:

1. It is very encouraging that Krishna Bharat is thinking about this, even if only as a piece of what he’s doing.

2. He’s right that whether or not you can trust the algorithm matters tremendously.

3. I remain skeptical that there’s any incentive for the algorithm to challenge me. Does he believe doing so will provide something I want and am more likely to click such that this vision fits nicely with Google’s bottom line? Or is he suggesting that he and his team are worried about more than the bottom line?

Bottom line: it’s great he’s thinking about this but he needs to explain why we should really believe it’s a priority if he wants us to truly trust the algorithm.


Google won’t feed me my vegetables

I had a post months back called “Who will feed me my vegetables?” about the dangers of social news feeds. Here was the gist:

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.

This is not just idle speculation. Here’s an entry today at the Google News Blog:

Last summer we redesigned Google News with new personalization features that let you tell us which subjects and sources you’d like to see more or less often. Starting today — if you’re logged in — you may also find stories based on articles you’ve clicked on before.

For signed-in users in the Personalized U.S. Edition, “News for You” will now include stories based on your news-related web history. For example, if you click on a lot of articles about baseball, we’ll make sure that you get a chance to see breaking baseball stories. We found in testing that more users clicked on more stories when we added this automatic personalization, sending more traffic to publishers.

Emphasis mine. In many ways this is obviously useful. But it carries real risks. And I bolded that last line to emphasize the driving force behind these efforts: profit. What you should be reading is nowhere in the equation. Even what you want to read is useful only to the extent that it serves up traffic and ad revenue. Somewhat related…I’m increasingly curious about the possibility for “responsible algorithms” to add a new layer to the web experience for users on an opt-in basis. That’s something I’ll expand on in a future post.