Let me tell you the founding myth of the Internet. Once upon a time, we lived in a broadcast society, one in which the few transmitted information to the many. That information was controlled by gatekeepers radio stations, newspapers, TV networks that decided what we did and what we did not see, read or hear and who prescribed our media diets. There was the mainstream and there was no stream. But then the World Wide Web came along and blew the gatekeepers away. Suddenly anyone with a computer and an Internet connection could take part in the conversation. Countless viewpoints bloomed. There was no longer a mainstream; instead, there was an ocean of information, one in which Web users were free to swim.
It's a wonderful idea. Except, as Eli Pariser argues in his vital new book The Filter Bubble (Penguin), it's no longer true. Invisibly over the past few years, the major social networks and search engines, led by the behemoths Facebook and Google, have begun tailoring their results to the individual Web user. It's called personalization, and on the surface, it sounds like a good thing. Where once Google delivered search results based on an algorithm that was identical for everyone, now what we see when we enter a term in the big box depends on who we are, where we are and what we are. Facebook has long since done the same thing for its all-important News Feed: you'll see different status updates and stories float to the top based on the data Mark Zuckerberg and company have on you. The universal Web is a thing of the past. Instead, as Pariser writes, we've been left "isolated in a web of one" and, given that we increasingly view the world through the lens of the Internet, that change has frightening consequences for the media, community and even democracy.
The Filter Bubble is just the latest book to air worries about what the Internet and social networks are doing to privacy and humanity. (Think Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget or Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion.) But Pariser is different. The 30-year-old is an online wunderkind. In the wake of 9/11, he began an online petition for a nonviolent response to the attacks; it garnered half a million supporters in less than a month. That led to a job as the executive director of the pioneering online political group MoveOn.org, on whose board he now serves as president. Pariser writes movingly about the promise of connection the Internet offered him as a kid growing up in rural Maine in the 1990s. He's a fan of Facebook and an avid Twitterer.
Yet Pariser is convinced that something has gone very wrong with the Internet and he's worried that if something doesn't change soon, we'll all be stuck in our own filter bubbles. I can already see mine. I took part in an online experiment Pariser put together in which I entered popular search terms like "Barack Obama" and "John Boehner" into Google and other search engines. When I typed Obama's name into Google, I got back a series of official websites, including his White House page, his campaign page and his Wikipedia entry. All popular and positive entries; pretty much what I'd expected. Yet when I entered Boehner's name, high in the search results were a few extremely negative sites. My politics are pretty progressive, as are most of my Facebook and Twitter friends'. Was Google taking those facts into account when it crunched my searches? Would a conservative have gotten a screen full of links to birther pages for an Obama search and a string of positive entries for Boehner?
Quite possibly, yes. Google has begun personalizing search results something it does even if you're not signed into your Google account. (A Google engineer told Pariser that the company uses 57 different signals to shape individual search results, including what kind of browser you're using and where you are.) Facebook does much the same thing with its News Feed function: if you click on certain friends' links more often, you'll see them float to the top of your screen, while unpopular links disappear. Yahoo! News the biggest news site on the Web is personalized, and even mainstream sites like those of the New York Times and the Washington Post are giving more space to personalized recommendations. As Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt has said, "It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that is not tailored for them."