Why everyone is doing it
It's not just Google and Facebook that shape and filter what you see online based on invisible assumptions and behind-the-scenes stereotyping. Amazon, Netflix, Pandora and hundreds of other companies offer "recommendations" or content based on personalization algorithms.
And personalization is becoming big business. Companies like Strands license their personalization engines to other companies. Strands customers include major banks, coupon and discount services and retailers, music sites and advertising companies.
The whole Internet is rapidly being personalized. Nobody can predict what kind of Internet -- what kind of world -- will emerge when everyone has a unique view of the world that nobody else can share.
Companies are aggressively pursuing personalization because it makes users happy. Personalization validates existing beliefs and prejudices. "Consuming information that conforms to our ideas of the world is easy and pleasurable," according to Pariser. "Consuming information that challenges us to think in new ways or question our assumptions is frustrating and difficult."
Personalization can create an "identity loop," according to Pariser. If you click to satisfy some passing curiosity, the algorithm might favor more such links in future. Because there are more links, you click more. You might even monitor your own activity and conclude that you must be especially interested. Personalization not only responds to personal interests. It shapes them.
And personalization based on activity favors the frivolous and the commercial. We all click mindlessly for temporary escapism. But we don't realize that we're training the Internet to favor that kind of content over important information.
Ultimately, personalization is ideal for marketing. We want perfect relevancy when shopping. As one venture capitalist said at this week's Social-Loco conference in San Francisco, "when you walk into a store, the only shoes and clothes available should be in your size."
The Googles and the Facebooks of the world are advertising companies. Their customers are advertisers, not users. And their customers love user personalization, because it's the shortest line between consumer and point of sale.
Of course, most sources of content are "biased." The site you're reading now, for example, is "biased" in favor of technology-related content over, say, stories about Latin music. The difference is that online personalization is invisible. Nobody knows what's being filtered out or why. Most people don't even know that filtering is taking place.
How to pop the bubble
If you don't want your Internet filtered by some invisible stereotype, here's how to pop the bubble. These tips are a combination of my own, plus some offered in The Filter Bubble.
* Deliberately click on links that make it hard for the personalization engines to pigeonhole you. Make yourself difficult to stereotype.
* Erase your browser history and cookies from time to time.
* Use an "incognito" window for exploring content you don't want too much of later.
* Use Twitter instead of Facebook for news. (Twitter doesn't personalize.)
* Unblock the Status Updates of your friends that Facebook has already blocked. Click the "Edit Options" link at the bottom of your Facebook News Feed. The dialog box will show you who is being blocked. You can hide or un-hide each friend manually, or unblock everybody. This dialog box affects only what comes from friends to you. It does not affect what your friends see of your posts.
* Every week or so, post something and then ask the Facebook friends you really care about to go "Like," comment and click. This activity should prevent Facebook from censoring your comments later for these people.
The most important thing about the "filter bubble" is that you know it exists. The Internet you see is not the Internet I see. The Internet you see has recently been redesigned to flatter, pander and validate -- not challenge, enlighten and educate.
The filter bubble is real. But it can be popped.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com.
This story, "Pop Your Internet 'Filter' Bubble" was originally published by Computerworld.