Thursday, December 22, 2011

Book Review: The Filter Bubble

I got turned onto The Filter Bubble after viewing the author's TED talk on the same subject.

The TED talk gives you main idea, and that's probably sufficient. The book dives into a lot of interesting detail, some of which isn't exactly related to the core thesis, and that's part of the problem I had with it. The idea is sound but the book is a somewhat meandering exploration of the idea... along with other things the author is interested in but that are unrelated.

The thesis is as follows: In order to better serve users, search providers, social networking sites, and other information sources are providing personalized data feeds - feeds tuned to their preferences. As these become our primary sources of information, it results in a feedback loop where we only see what we like, and what we see influences what we like. He borrows danah boyd's analogy of an all-sugar-and-fat diet (it might be what you crave, but it's not good for you), encouraging us to think about ways to eat our digital veggies.

This is not new of course. The advent of television brought about similar paranoia. However, there's no denying that it's true to some degree and the fact that it can be dialed in to each individual user makes it credible. The paranoia is seductive to give into. Even if you don't there's some interesting stuff in the book, though there are also some flaws.

Pros:

  • I learned a lot about how modern internet advertising & site personalization work. I'd heard of companies like Axiom but didn't know what they do.
  • The book does a good job painting a picture of some possible outcomes of personalized search and personalized advertising (e.g. think of tailored political ads, for example, and the complexities of holding them accountable to telling the truth).
  • He does a good job explaining some basic concepts around programming and technology in layman's terms. Not much use to me, but I might think of recommending it more easily to a relative or non-techie friend.
Cons:
  • The author delves into a lot of other areas having little to do with 'filter bubbles'.
  • Those areas that do are taken too far, and consist mostly of his own 'what ifs', rather than consulting research and/or data on the subject.
  • The solutions proposed are weak. Telling people they should try to consume responsibly, out-smart the personalization-bots, etc, all seem like they'll fail and/or fall of deaf ears. Suggesting maybe there could be an ombudsman or some regulation seems like a bit of a cop out without proposing how those might work.

I guess I'd say most will be better off watching the TED talk to get the basic idea, and then reading the book only if they want see how deep the rat-hole goes.

The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You

2 comments:

Andy said...

heh- new fangled terminology for an old term known as "group think" :-)

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