It’s time to engineer some filter failure

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.

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23 thoughts on “It’s time to engineer some filter failure

  1. Do you think that your observation has anything to do with the gridlock in Washington DC? Do you think that inaction in Washington DC is a good or bad thing?
    While Facebook seems to be good for grandparents to see pictures of grandkids does it have other valuable features?
    Do these words represent my real opinion or preferences?
    Difference of opinion makes things better? True or False
    Do I follow Jon because I ‘Like’ him or respect his opinion? To save Facebook institute a ‘Respect’ button. Just don’t send me ads for his taste in shoes. ;-)

  2. Early in my Google+ involvement I recognized this “like-minded” filtration. My attempt to counter it was create a Circle and intentionally follow people who’s views would run contrary to my own.

    1. Nice example of exactly what Udell intends. Good on ya and I will try it, but it does have kind of Nixonian ‘enemies list’ aroma to it, doesn’t it. That’s what I am going to call my circle–Enemies of My State. ;-)

  3. Very well said, Jon! I’ve referred to social networks in particular as “echo chambers of affirmation” as they easily can lead to a constant affirming that your own views are right (and everyone else is wrong). Like you, I deliberately follow some people whose views are polar opposites of mine, just so that I can occasionally see other views.

    However, your point about, for instance, Facebook’s filter still showing you recommendations based on your views is true. Perhaps I need to go around and “Like” a bunch of pages that have opposite viewpoints from mine to try to confuse Facebook’s filter. The down side, of course, is that I’m also publicly endorsing via my “Like” organizations and entities who I truly despise. :-(

  4. Dan, that’s why I’m imagining a slider that goes between “Always affirm my echo chamber” and “Always challenge my echo chamber”

  5. I, too, loved the Napster library-browse effect, so I try to mimic it as much as I can in Spotify.

    As interesting stuff flows by in my Activity feed, I’ll click on the people to dig deeper into their shared playlists (and browse the people/playlists THEY follow…) to find things to follow.

    So while my follow-list starts out being friends, it quickly branches out into a big mix of friends, friends-of-friends-of-friends, suggestions by Spotify, etc. Not truly random, but does introduce a bit of spontaneity to find new music.

  6. You know of course Google does show results on your searches. But do you know also that Google only shows what Google knows you will want to know? Google is filtering too. Time for an other search machine for you?

    1. I like duckduckgo myself. Put it in the search engine roll bar. They still, of course, use algorithms, just less evil ones.

  7. Twitter used to provide a way to see the stream of tweets seen by a different Twitter user. The feature was killed in 2009 (, reintroduced in 2011 ( and then killed again. This offered an interesting way to see the world through someone else’s filter. I believe that you could even add the RSS feed for that stream into your RSS reader, and collect a few different realities to check in on occasionally.

  8. Here’s an annotated link with some responses:

    Question: if we bake in the filter failure, does that turn it into a feature? I am thinking that I would prefer a bug, a burr in the saddle, a real life Gadfly. Thanks for being just that with this post.

  9. Remember when you could just click through ‘next blog’, without even looking at ‘featured’. I turn off as many filters as I can, but being far from techie, I don’t even know what to look for, most of the time. How is Google News filtered, for instance?
    Why does everyone I know show the same ‘viral’ UTube cuties. (Sick of the Budweiser dog already!)
    I find great links and info in here, btw. Love it!

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