Eli Pariser: How Internet Personalization Feeds Us Junk

7 May

One of the occupational hazards of life as a hermit is spending an absurd amount of time considering the intricacy of mundane scenarios.

For example, yesterday I blogged about how no one should trust salad.

And lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time considering only marginally more merit-worthy: something on I dub “Mini-feed Missing Persons”.

For quite some time, I have been wondering how it’s possible that I have about a thousand Facebook friends and yet see only a fraction of them in my mini-feed.  I could blame the privacy settings folks might have, but I’d venture to say I have well over 100 friends who are okay with me knowing every single aspect of their Facebook lives.    I don’t say this because I’m full of myself.  I say this because the majority of my friends are involved in theater, and theater people are open to a low, dirty fault.   You know, for the most part.

Besides, Facebook changes its privacy settings so often that even if you started out incredibly diligent about following up with your Account Settings every time an update was made, by now you’ve probably loosened up.  So what’s going on? Why am I only able to easily stalk a fraction of the friends I actually seem to have a connection with in my virtual society?

I started listening to TED lectures because they’re incredibly addictive and mind-blowing in new, brain-stretchy ways.   If we could replace some of the absolute filth on television with a TED talk or few, I’m quite certain that the average IQ and general decency of society would gain 10 quality points (which, on the imaginary quality scale I just made up right now, is a whole lot).  And in my recent run-in, I found Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles”

In my not-so-witty-and-straightforward summary, the idea behind Eli Pariser’s discussion is that user-generated content and targeted advertising are based on a junk food mentality.   The algorithm that determines what we click on most often is actually targeting what we click on first.   And that what we click on first tends to be junk food for the mind – which are the ideas we already know and like, or sometimes even trash and guilty indulgences.  Eventually, we plan to get to higher-thinking activities and pages but over time it will be determined for us that we will click on the junk food most happily and most readily – and so all  that’s given to us is junk food.   Pariser relates the concept to our Netflix queue and how typical queues will show guilty pleasure movies being moved to the front and intellectual better-yourself movies and documentaries to the back.  He says, “We all want to be someone who has watched Rashomon but right now we want to watch Ace Ventura for the fourth time.” 

And wouldn’t ya know- after all this time I’ve been thinking of this Facebook friend void seemingly in my own little hermit mind, Eli Pariser comes along and talks about it as well:

“Take his Facebook page, for example. Pariser used to receive comments and links from readers on both sides of the political spectrum. Then one day he noticed his conservative friends had disappeared; only links from his liberal friends remained. Facebook, without asking him, had seen that he clicked more often on links from left-leaning friends and simply edited out the rest. The site used an algorithm that hides from view the kinds of content it has determined, from your past activity, that you are less likely to interact with.”  – Excerpt from an article by Kim Zetter for Wired.com Ted 2011:Junk Food Algorithms and the World They Feed Us.

And so that’s what’s happening to all my Facebook friends.  This new age of personalization on the Internet means that if I never wander over to that old high school friend I’ve been meaning to get in touch with and instead check up on my promiscuous neighbor, I will find my mini-feed devoid of said friend and chock-full of half-clothed, drunken neighbor.

What’s my point?  Twofold.  First, TED lectures are awesome and you should look into them.  You could start with the one I’m referencing.  It’s ten minutes: try it. 

Second, my Facebook friends are not more visible because apparently at some point, I stopped checking up on them.  As a result, they’ve been systematically weeded out.  I actually have to search through my friends list for a name instead of just reading the mini-feed? Preposterous!  But hey – mystery solved.

And listen – I know that I’m a millennial and all, but this affect everyone, not just mini-feed-crazy Generation Y.   You’re reading this blog, you use the Internet, and you probably use Google.  And it might be interesting for you to know that if you’re a conservative from Idaho and your buddy is a Liberal from Alaska, you can type the same search term into Google and be fed completely different search results.

I don’t know whether to be in awe or fear of the potential consequences.  What do you think? 



17 Responses to “Eli Pariser: How Internet Personalization Feeds Us Junk”

  1. Sonia G Medeiros May 7, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    Scary thought! I guess we all need to get a little better about clicking on the “grow food” (as my kiddos call it).


    • Jackie May 7, 2011 at 11:48 am #

      I love that term. 🙂


  2. The_Observationalist_NYC May 7, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    My Facebook wall feed now only shows updates from three friends of mine. I thought it was weird at first (did all my other friends disappear?), but then I was told of this junk-food-algorithm… Crazy that I really only keep up with about three people on FB; and they’re not even people I consider close. Bizarre.


    • Jackie May 7, 2011 at 11:48 am #

      But they’re apparently people you find interesting 😉


  3. thesinglecell May 7, 2011 at 10:43 am #

    May I sugggest: when you open your news feed, go to the option at the top of the screen that says “most recent.” If you hover just to the right of it, you’ll see an arrow. There’s a dropdown menu. Open that and then click on “edit options” and then click on “show posts from all your friends and pages.” A while back, FB defaulted your news feed to show only the people you interact with the most. You have to reset it. 🙂


    • Jackie May 7, 2011 at 11:47 am #

      Thanks, Single!


    • Jackie May 12, 2011 at 12:42 am #

      Thank you SO MUCH.


  4. Jules May 7, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    This is what happens when you let robots think for us. :-/


    • Jackie May 7, 2011 at 11:47 am #

      I know – super creepy


  5. knotrune May 8, 2011 at 5:50 am #

    That really makes me angry! I hate that FB does that! I don’t want my friends filtered out and also I don’t want my posts to be filtered out of their feed! Especially if I am posting about something they might not agree with which I want to discuss with people who have different views than mine. Who do FB think they are? That’s censorship!

    I had been made aware of the setting to change and did that, but it does make me wonder if there are more insidious filters and what we can do about it. It makes me want to email FB! I’ve been wanting to for a while, but I suspect it will be annoyingly hard to find how to do so, so I’ve been putting it off…


    • Jackie May 12, 2011 at 12:42 am #

      I have no idea if the folks at FB are even reachable. It seems like they constantly make changes and I’m not sure if they have a focus group or what the deal is. But hey – I’m all for appeals to them to knock off the automatic filters. They should at least put out a notice upon first login after the changes have been made to let you know what’s going on. Thanks to my reader suggestions here, I now know I can “unfilter” it. I wish I’d known that a while ago! :/


  6. Rhi May 8, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    First off, and maybe you already found this, but you can log into facebook, scroll to the bottom of your mini feed and click ‘edit options’. It’ll then have a drop down ‘show posts from’ and change this to ‘all of your friends and pages’ which SHOULD increase the variation of friends in your mini feed- not just the first ones you clicked on 🙂

    All this tracking shite scares the bejaysus out of me. I recently acquired a Swedish facebook friend…now all my ads are coming up in Swedish!xx


    • Jackie May 11, 2011 at 11:03 pm #

      I did not know that, actually. And I’m so incredibly thankful for you telling me. I can see my friends now! 🙂 Thank you so much!


  7. pegoleg May 9, 2011 at 10:04 am #

    Thanks for the link, Jackie. As I get older I’m more succeptible to these conspiracy theories and I’m afraid I’ll end up like my 80+ dad who keeps sending emails with stuff like how Obama and Exxon are in cahoots to provide spotted owl to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

    Maybe paranoia is not always an unreasonable response?


    • Jackie May 11, 2011 at 9:58 pm #

      LOL Your dad sounds like a hoot (no pun intended). But by the time we’re 80, I’m sure we’ll both have seen enough ridiculous, money-hungry happenings to make us highly suspicious as well. I have to admit that the Internet personalization thing really does have me a little shook up. Everything evolves. That’s the worry.


  8. Ro May 9, 2011 at 10:55 am #

    I’m really sad now. You’re only my friend because facebook decided we’re to be soul mates. 😦


    • Jackie May 11, 2011 at 9:54 pm #

      I don’t understand why you’re sad. You have no reason to be sad. Your name is Ro.


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