Creating a Bubble of Our Own Preferences

Not that long ago, we watched whatever was available on TV. If we wanted a movie, we went to the theaters (and only to the theaters). If we wanted music, we used whatever we had in our collections or what was available on the radio. Books? The library, the bookstore, our collections, or maybe we could read a friend's copy.

How about general information? That one was a little trickier. You had the library, magazines, newspapers, some info telephone numbers (remember calling to get the weather forecast?), or you had TV and radio. None of these sources was particularly efficient at giving you exactly the answer you needed, but the answers were probably there if you could dig far enough.

(Quick aside: I just saw Three Days of the Condor within the past couple of years, and it was an amazing reminder how valuable the information of books were as a way to understand the world's thinking. If you haven't seen it recently, it's worth your time.)

The Shift

And now, of course, we have the Internet. We have video players in our houses. We have them on our phones. We have practically all the music, all the books, and every movie and TV show at our disposal any time we want it, provided our budgets can accommodate our interests. (Granted, not all media has been recorded, but it's still more than the average person has ever had access to.)

And so, to filter through this enormous amount of data, we have a number of intuitive systems. The only problem is, these systems are insulating us from one another in ways that we may not even be aware of. The shared experiences of yesteryear are becoming fewer and further between. They still exist in truly newsworthy events like elections, major sporting events, world news, and that sort of thing (even if the spin on those events differs with each outlet). The sharing of the mundane, though, is much different. We don't all watch the latest American Idol or all visit the same website. And even if many of us are on Facebook, our experiences still vastly differ.

Let's take a closer look.

How Websites Are Creating a Bubble for You

The web is working hard to personalize content for you on a regular basis, but Facebook and Google probably stand out as the leaders in this space.

Facebook wants to be your online home. It wants to be what AOL was to users 10 - 15 years ago, except Facebook takes the concept further. Facebook wants to give you your news, give you a place for all your thoughts and photos, and it wants to advertise to you for everything it's worth.

But it's the EdgeRank factor that truly shapes the bubble of your experience. EdgeRank is an algorithm that Facebook uses to determine what news and updates you see on your feed. You don't see what most of your friends are posting because it would likely be way too much info to be able to actually sift through. So, Facebook has decided to "help" you by automatically determining what you will and won't see.

Try this to see how much of a difference it makes in what you see. From the newsfeed view, look for the little option on the top right that says "Sort: Top Stories." Use the drop down to try the "Most Recent" option. Here is information you may or may not have seen if you're only looking at the Top Stories feed.

Facebook preferences
Facebook preferences

The fact is, Facebook collects so much information all across the web now that seeing the most recent feed all of the time would be a frustrating experience. I'm not particularly interested in what each one of my friends decided to like that day. On the other hand, we're relying on an algorithm based on our user patterns to direct our Facebook experience. So if you haven't interacted with your mom on Facebook enough, you may not see what she has to say there. (I'll leave that up to you whether that's a good or bad thing.)

Partly through our efforts and partly through a machine attempting to understand our preferences, Facebook helps us create a bubble on our social interactions.

Google has its own tools to help you come across what it thinks you want to see. Even if they're not gathering data on you through an Android phone, Google+, or Gmail, then they're still able to serve up somewhat relevant content based solely on the queries you make in Google or your location when you access their services.

I really like Google+, and I find that the way it interacts with my activities online to be useful. I can see what other friends read and liked. (Bing is doing the same with signals from Facebook and Twitter if you've connected your services there.)

Eli Pariser delivered a rather informative TED talk on the matter, which I've included below or you can watch on the TED website.

Long story short: when we rely solely on search engines to inform our worldview, then we're going to quickly lose out on a well-rounded understanding of topics.

More than Just Social and Search

These are just online scenarios. Think of customer loyalty cards at your local grocery store where you receive coupons based on what you've already purchased.

Think of how you can use services like Hulu on your TV now. We don't even have cable TV in our house. We just recently picked up a Roku, so I can watch online streaming content based solely on my preferences and stay completely insulated from the events of the world.

The examples could go on and on.

What Are Your Options?

We know that we have several ways to insulate ourselves from the rest of the world, even if we're not intentionally doing so. The question now is, "How can we expand our worldview?"

Here are some options.

Turn off personalized services whenever possible. - Search engines are still going to filter your results to some degree, no matter how many ways you try to prevent it.

Use social media sparingly. - Interacting with others can help expand your world, but social media services are actively limiting your experience.

Make it a point to talk to other people about their experiences. - Actively search for new communities to join, both online and offline. We have to get outside our comfort zone to some extent if we're going to continue learning about the world around us.

Look for new opportunities to gain exposure to media. - One advantage of using services like Spotify, Pandora, etc. is that they can help you bridge across to new media by continually selecting options from the "if you like this, then try that" options. Eventually, you'll come across something you never would have tried any other way.

I still use personalized services and social media myself, but I know that my worldview is being limited by them. That's why I look for ways to use the last two options listed above to help expand my understanding.

The key factor in all of this is to simply be aware of the filtering that is happening. Just because we didn't see a particular piece of new doesn't mean it didn't happen. The real world is not contained in the few channels that we immerse ourselves in, so we have to remember to break free and peer out at the rest of the world on a regular basis.

What Do You Think?

Do you feel like you're in a bubble right now? If so, do you think it's a good thing or bad thing? Are you looking for ways to escape?