The social Web’s echo chambers

A discussion of the benefits of the social Web wouldn’t be complete without a mention of an emerging risk: that the technology of personalization is becoming so sophisticated that this giant digital space is getting carved up into a myriad little echo chambers. In other words, as the New York Times put it, “on the Web, we often see what we like, and like what we see.” Eli Pariser, board president of the political advocacy group MoveOn.org, talked about this at the TED Conference this past spring and is now talking about it in his book The Filter Bubble. And social media researcher danah boyd talked about it in a different way in her 2009 keynote “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online” at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York (text here). We’re not getting diversity, in terms of class, race, politics, etc. “In an ideal world, the Web would be a great equalizer, opening up the same unlimited vistas to everyone. Personalization is supposed to streamline discovery on an individual level,” according to the Times, but if we’re not careful, it just streamlines discovery of what you want to discover. So, whether it’s algorithms that put you with ideas and people you relate to or your real-life social network that does that as it congregates in a Web site like Facebook, it has become basic media literacy (as in Media Literacy 101) to understand this now. It’s something librarians, media specialists, teachers, and parents need to know so they can help their students work with and around the echo chambers, not only for an accurate picture of the world they live in but for effective civic engagement. Then, once we’re aware of this, what to do about it? “Mr. Pariser suggests people sign up for a range of feeds on Twitter, where the posts are unfiltered. [Computer scientist Jaron] Lanier suggests Tea Party members swap laptops for a day with progressives and observe the different results that turn up on one another’s search engines.” [See also: "Why social media help private citizens want to help solve public problems."]


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