The problem isn’t information overload, Clay Shirky famously said, it’s filter failure. Lately, though, I’m more worried about filter success. Increasingly my filters are being defined for me by systems that watch my behavior and suggest More Like This. More things to read, people to follow, songs to hear. These filters do a great job of hiding things that are dissimilar and surprising. But that’s the very definition of information! Formally it’s the one thing that’s not like the others, the one that surprises you.
So I’m always on the lookout for ways to defeat the filters and see things through lenses other than my own. On Facebook, for example, I stay connected to people with whom I profoundly disagree. As a tourist of other people’s echo chambers I gain perspective on my native echo chamber. Facebook doesn’t discourage this tourism, but it doesn’t actively encourage it either.
The other day an acquaintance posted a link to an article about a hot topic on which we disagree. Knowing my view, Facebook injected a link to an article that confirms it. There are two related problems here. First, in this context I don’t want Facebook to show me what it thinks is related to my view. I want to know more about the evidence that supports the opposing view, and the way in which my acquaintance’s thinking is informed by that evidence. That’s why I maintain the connection! I want to empathize with and understand The Other.
When I polled participants in the thread, I learned that nobody else saw the link that was suggested to me. That’s the second problem. If I hadn’t checked I might have assumed that Facebook was brokering a connection among echo chambers. That would have been cool but it’s not what actually happened.
As I think back on the evolution of social media I recall a few moments when my filters did “fail” in ways that delivered the kinds of surprises I value. Napster was the first. When you found a tune on Napster you could also explore the library of the person who shared that tune. That person had no idea who I was or what I’d like. By way of a tune we randomly shared in common I found many delightful surprises. I don’t have that experience on Pandora today.
Likewise the early blogosophere. I built my echo chamber there by following people whose lenses on the world complemented mine. For us the common thread was Net tech. But anything could and did appear in the feeds we shared directly with one another. Again there were many delightful surprises.
Remember when people warned us about the tyranny of The Daily Me? They were right, it’s happening big time. Of course it’s easy to escape The Daily Me. Try this, for example. Dump all your regular news sources and view the world through a different lens for a week. If you’re part of the US news nexus, for example, try Al Jazeera. It’s just a click away.
But that click isn’t on the path of least resistance. Our filters have become so successful that we fail to notice:
- We don’t control them
- They have agendas
- They distort our connections to people and ideas
I want my filters to fail, and I want dials that control the degrees and kinds of failures.