Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tiny Bubbles: A Review of The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser

Title: The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You
Author: Eli Pariser
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Penguin Press (2011)
Pages: 294
Challenges: 2011 GoodReads Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: Part of the book that I’m working on deals with misinformation and, similarly, disinformation. When I saw this book in the new arrivals section of my library, it immediately caught my eye.

About the Author: Eli Pariser is the board president and former executive director of the five-million-member organization A pioneer in online politics, he is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and cofounder of, one of the world’s largest citizen organizations. His op-eds have appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He grew up in Linconville, Maine.

Synopsis: In December 2009, Google began customizing its search results for all users, and we entered into a new era of personalization. With little notice or fanfare, our online experience is changing as the Web sites we visit are increasingly tailoring themselves to us. In this engaging and visionary book, board president Eli Pariser lays bare the personalization that is already taking place on every major Web site, from Facebook to AOL to ABC News. As Pariser reveals, this new trend is nothing short of an invisible revolution in how we consume information, one that will shape how we learn, what we know, and even how our democracy works.

The race to collect as much personal data about us as possible, and to tailor our online experience accordingly, is now the defining battle for today’s Internet giants like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. Behind the scenes, a burgeoning industry of data companies is tracking our personal information—from our political leanings to the hiking boots we just browsed on Zappos—to sell to advertisers.

As a result, we will increasingly each live in our own unique information universe—what Pariser calls “the filter bubble.” We will receive mainly news that is pleasant and familiar and confirms our beliefs—and since these filters are invisible, we won’t know what is being hidden from us. Our past interests will determine what we are exposed to in the future, leaving less room for the unexpected encounters that spark creativity, innovation, and the democratic exchange of ideas.

Drawing on interviews with both cyberskeptics and cyberoptimists, from the cofounder of OkCupid, an algorithmically driven dating Web site, to one of the chief visionaries of U.S. information warfare, The Filter Bubble tells the story of how the Internet, a medium built around the open flow of ideas, is closing in on itself under the pressure of commerce and “monetization.” It peeks behind the curtain at the server farms, algorithms, and geeky entrepreneurs that have given us this new reality and investigates the consequences of corporate power in the digital age.

The Filter Bubble reveals how personalization could undermine the Internet’s original purpose as an open platform for the spread of ideas and leave us all in an isolated, echoing world. But it is not too late to change course. Pariser lays out a new vision for the Web, one that embraces the benefits of technology and will ensure that the Internet lives up to its transformative promise.

Review: My family first got the Internet when I was in middle school—around 1998 or 1999. Back then it was dial-up and I used it for pretty much the same thing that every teenage boy used the internet for those days: chat rooms, music, and pictures of the, uh, salacious variety. Almost 14 years has passed since then and the Internet has gone from being a useful tool that you would spend maybe an hour or two on to being a full-time presence in our lives. It’s no longer just about instant messaging, message boards, or poorly designed personal Web sites with lame MIDI files in the background. Now much of our daily lives are spent or carried out in cyberspace. Because of this, Pariser’s The Filter Bubble is a book that everyone should read.

I think a lot of us knew this day was coming. The digitalization of everything from photo albums to books has made us more than ever a people of the Internet age. It’s always there; in most places in the West, it’s taken for granted. Even if you don’t have access at home, you can go down the street to a coffee shop or a library and be instantly connected to any corner of the globe that you want. Of course, even in an era where I get daily visitors to this blog from places as diverse as Hong Kong, Russia, Iran, and Australia (among many, many others), the Internet has seemingly shrunk in recent years. We’re using it more as a life tool, as something we can use to keep track of our schedules, our families, our music and movie collection. With the development of cloud technology, we’ll begin storing our entire lives on servers. (Okay, you can. There’s no way in hell I’m going to trust my life to other people.) Instead of making friends half-way across the globe, we’re using computers to have conversations with our college roommate…who’s sitting right next to us in our dorm.

This is merely a small part of Pariser’s overall point in The Filter Bubble. In this fascinating exploration of how Google and other companies have begun the personalization of the Internet (and, of course, what it will mean for all of us), Pariser raises some troubling issues that have arisen from the commercialization of the Web. Advertisers have always been trying to discover what it is that makes us tick, what it will take to get us to buy their products. Apparently, all it takes is for them to know who we are. Or, at least, to have the appearance of knowing who we are. As we use the Internet more and more often for more and more reasons, data mining sites are collecting this data and selling it to the highest bidder. Google and Facebook make their money of off advertising, which means that they, too, are in the business of finding out who we are and what we like in order to profit off of that information. While it may be useful for our Web browser to be able to point us to exactly the right book or film, there are many drawbacks, which Pariser elucidates in a simple way that is easily connectable with our own lives.

The Filter Bubble relies on a variety of sources to create both an image of the Internet as it is now and a vision of what it could be in the future. These sources include the normal books and journal articles, but Pariser also makes good use of newspaper articles, press releases, interviews, and speeches. Rather than simply speculate on what it is that someone like Mark Zuckerberg or (the now-late) Steve Jobs is looking to accomplish, Pariser lets them speak for themselves. These voices, along with dozens of others, helped Pariser to construct a valid argument for the danger of personalization and to propose an interesting solution to our current predicament.

Okay, you’re asking, what exactly is so wrong about personalizing the Web? The Filter Bubble raises a lot of different problems with it, but there are a few that stick out the most to me. First, there’s the fact that, as the Internet becomes more and more personal, we will lose the ability to see dissenting opinions on the important issues of the day. The Opposing Viewpoints series provides a good example of what I mean. There are books in this series for everything from abortion to global warming to human sexuality. Each book contains about a dozen or more essays that look at various facets of an issue from both the pro and the con sides. At one point, the internet sort of worked like that, although it was never comprehensive enough. Someone searching for, say, “prayer in schools” would get articles and Web sites from many different perspectives and could judge for themselves which ones they found to be valid. Now that things are being personalized, I could type in “prayer in schools” and my friend could type in “prayer in schools” and we could each get wildly different results…all of which would confirm our previously-held assumptions on the issue. This, frankly, is terrifying. I’m against group prayer in public schools (what you choose to do by yourself is completely up to you), but that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in seeing what people who are for it have to say. The same could be said for my hypothetical friend, who might be a proponent of prayer in schools but is looking for perspectives from those who aren’t. If we can only find sources that reflect our beliefs, how the hell are we supposed to learn and grow?

This leads to a second issue with personalization that Pariser raises. I am not the person I was yesterday and I am certainly not the person I was ten years ago. But the Internet doesn’t really care. All a personalized Internet could know is what you’ve done in the past and what you are currently doing. From that it would make guesses as to what it is you are most likely to click on. That means that if one year you are mad about penguins, the color puce, and the film Moonstruck, the filter bubble would continue to give you suggestions for Web sites that relate to these topics even if you never want to see them ever again. On a more serious note, if at one point in your life you were a Conservative and you became a Liberal over time (or vice versa) or if you were once a Buddhist and became a Catholic (or vice versa), the filter bubble would still be churning out news, opinions, and sites that pertained to your past beliefs, ignoring your present beliefs. Even more egregious is the idea that you might never become a Liberal or a Catholic simply because the bubble never turned up links to the life-changing ideas that you would have needed to be exposed to in order to become a different person.

A third thing that the filter bubble could affect is how we interact with each other. We already depend too much on computers and handheld devices to act as intermediaries between ourselves and other people. And we already put ourselves into personal filter bubbles that keep us anchored to people who are more like ourselves than they are different. The filter bubble intensifies these things, mooring us to the docks of “Us” and “Them,” as well as furthering our disconnection from people who are outside of our comfort zone. Pariser asserts that as the Internet becomes more like us, we will become further entrenched in not just our own beliefs but in our own company as well. Say goodbye to the days of pen pals from Estonia and say hello to more and more people who remind you of your next-door neighbors.

The Filter Bubble is well-researched, well-written, and well-argued. Pariser’s case is hard to ignore once you take a look at what the internet has already become. Our Facebook friends pop up on every Web site from news sources to shoe stores; Google practically has a monopoly on search engines. Both of these companies are in the business of advertising; both of them benefit from creating a tiny, predictable bubble around each and every one of us. It’s why Google+ requires a real name. It’s why Mark Zuckerberg wants to get rid of anonymity.

I’m giving The Filter Bubble 4.5 out of 5 stars. It loses half a point because its end notes used the same method used in Area 51—that god-awful page number with a small bit of the sentence being cited thing that I hate so much. I’m not sure what citation guide suggests that form of notes, but it sure as hell isn’t Chicago Manual. I cannot recommend this book enough. No matter what your personal, political, or religious beliefs are, if you are an Internet user (and obviously you are if you’re reading this), you must pick it up.



  1. I've often wondered about those customised ads on Facebook, but I never knew it spread across the internet in terms of searches etc. This sounds really interesting, I'll definitely be checking it out!

  2. Kayleigh: I'd love to see what you think of it. I've seen some people on the internet denouncing Pariser's ideas, but I can't help but agree with him. I've seen the way personalization has crept into my own online life (and I'm not even the kind of person who clicks on ads!) and I can see the ways in which it could be used, both good and bad.