Make mine the good news, please
Eli Pariser, the former executive director of MoveOn.org, spoke at TED this week, about how one’s Facebook wall will weed out the plurality of information it presents as it reacts to one’s own click bias. The more you “like” liberal friends the less the illiberal ones come knocking at your door. How kind.
Parisier was alarmed that the “invisible algorithmic editing of the web moves us to a world where the Internet shows us what it thinks we need to see, but not what we should see.” But what did Parisier expect would happen when the web’s user-driven logic began to be applied to all data, including our “news”?
The truth is that if Facebook’s or Google’s algorithm did not do it these brands might not be as popular as they have become and people would soon be performing the same task of selection themselves. And while this might lead to greater FB honesty and the weeding out of some of the more unrealistic networks of so-called “friends” it still will not add up to Parisier’s healthy information diet.
No brainer. Once you add the self-selective nature of internet consumption to decades of corporate media and then tweak it with whatever keeps your seratonin levels on an even keel you have the perfect recipe for blissful ignorance — you might call it the best opium the people have ever had.
Of course when you pan out to a future when all our news arrives via a closed garden, be it a personalised one like Facebook, a commercial one behind a pay-wall, or both, the selection will become ever more acute and our view ever more narrow. Then the polarisation of views it fosters and balkanisation of experience it engenders could prove to have some more serious impact on our real world too.
“We need the internet to connect us and introduce us to new ideas and people and different perspectives,” said Pariser. “And it’s not going to do that if it leaves us all isolated in a web of one.”
Pariser’s talk chimed with recent comments by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who contrasted the relevance of Al Jazeera’s recent Middle East coverage with the rather fuzzier performance of America’s corporate networks.
And while my instinct is that Pariser is tilting at windmills when he thinks new, less commercially aggressive algorithms can be agreed on, the good news is that Al Jazeera’s audience did in fact increase during this period when its news has been harder and better. Who knows, perhaps the digital brands will listen too.