The risk of living in a filter bubble

The Filter Bubble coverI’ve been looking for this book for a long time. Or maybe I should rephrase that. I was pondering this topic and had been looking for a book which covered it for a while so I was pleased to come across The Filter Bubble.

Digging into search engine optimization and analytics while building my own website, I was often confused by inconsistent Google search results. Realizing I was on a different computer, or I was logged into Google services I would logout to see the untainted results, the results everyone else was seeing. Or was I?

As Google+ personalization launched the topic of search really piqued my interest. Why had I been given different results at different times? The coverage on Gigaom, AllThingsD, TechCrunch and ReadWriteWeb cautioned that this could be the turning point for Google, in a bad way.

The filter

It’s true Google takes signals from many different sources. With the launch of Google+ they now incorporate additional social signals. As Facebook becomes the default dashboard for more and more internet users, the means of finding content is shifting from Search to Social. So Google is responding to this by making their overall service more social as well.

The impact though for users of the service could be confusion. Many users I’ve spoken to, working in tech or otherwise think the results they see on Google are unbiased and the same for each user. Google’s secret sauce has always been its algorithm that returned the best results. Now that social signals are mixed into the page rank brew, will users continue to value Google results?

A cause for concern

Pariser’s illustrates the difference in Google search today with great examples. After the gulf oil spill, he asked two friends to search for “BP”. One saw breaking news on the topic, the other got investment information about BP. Filter bubble, indeed.

Behavior Targeting, as it’s termed in the industry, is all about figuring out what you want before you ask. But sociologist Danah Boyd argued in a Web 2.0 Expo speech in 2009, that with all this personalization giving us exactly what we *want* that
“If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity”.
Even foundres, Sergey Brin and Larry Page in the early days apparently thought that this bias might turn out to be a problem

[quote_left]“We expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers”.— Sergey Brin & Larry Page, Google[/quote_left]

Firms like Recorded Future promise to “unlock the predictive power of the web” and lesser known but formidable Acxiom which specializes in marketing and personalization, combing through mountains of data to figure out what coast you live on, how you vote, what you eat and drink, and almost what you’re going to do before you do it.

Pariser touches on everything in this book from present bias to meaningful threats, the priming effect, accessibility bias and warns of getting trapped in what he terms a “you loop” where you continue to see things framed and personalized by what you’ve viewed and reacted to before, ultimately narrowing your view, and limiting your exposure to new information.

Perhaps the biggest problem with these opaque transformations applied to your data is that they play judge and jury with no appeal; sometimes without your knowledge that you were in a courtroom being judged. Programmers write algorithms and code to perform these transformations, sorting people into groups. If they put people in a group that doesn’t match them they call it “overfitting”. In society we might call this some sort of stereotyping.

One chapter titled the Adderall Society, asks if this filter bubble isn’t part of a larger transformation that’s pushing our thinking towards the conservative and calculative, limiting creativity or foreign ideas that can break categories, and encouraging us to ignore or steer around serendipity.

The book bumps into a great spectrum of thinkers on this topic, from Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand, to Amit Singhal an engineer on Google’s team, and John Battelle’s SearchBlog. He speaks to Chris Coyne –, David Shields on what he calls truthiness and former CIA consultant John Rendon who says “filter bubbles provide new ways of managing perceptions” and suggests the garden variety Thesaurus as a powerful tool that nudges debates with new language.

Be aware but don’t be paranoid

Although I think the book gives valuable insight, I was a little dismayed by the mood of paranoia in its title. With a subtitle like What the Internet is Hiding from You, it suggests a conspiracy or hidden agenda. Now obviously these large corps have a motive to make money, but I don’t think anyone is surprised at that. To some, Pariser’s views may appear somewhat left leaning but the issues raised in his book transcends political boundaries. They are matters that concern society at large.

In the end I think I’m probably more optimistic about these things. With a long view, society tends to work out these issues, through public pressure or simply buying differently. As Google is quick to remind us, we can easily choose an alternate search engine. In the future perhaps public pressure will push firms to provide more transparency about these filtering mechanisms allowing end users to manage their own filter settings.

I’ll leave you with a few ideas to chew on. Can code and algorithms curate properly? Should there be another button alongside the Like button such as “Important”?

Pariser quoted the folks at the New York Times: “We don’t let metrics dictate our assignments and play, because we believe readers come to us for our judgement, not the judgement of the crowd”. Indeed. But in the internet age, is that what they *buy* or *click*?

“My startup is too cool for your business school”

An article I read on Tech Crunch recently got me thinking about startup culture. In Are You Building A Company, Or Just Your Credentials Geoff Lewis, expressed his distaste for a friend’s plan to get on Y Combinator’s ‘no idea’ startup incubation program. In this experimental approach, groups or individuals with a desire to be part of a startup but who have no product or business idea to begin with, can apply.

The thinking I believe, is that since brilliant ideas aren’t the only factor for startup success (many other factors like organisation skills, business savvy and tenacity matter too) YC will dig into their vault of ideas and match one that’s most suitable to these idea-starved groups.

Firstly, reading this I could sympathize with the discontent.  Venture capitalists exist for people who have an idea and want to realise it. There are already programs for people who don’t have an idea but want to achieve some success. They are called “careers”.

However, if you look at it from an incubator’s perspective, it’s a pretty clever and measured approach. YC knows what sort of group dynamic in startups have a higher chance of success and it is casting its net wide to find them.

But Lewis took issue with the fact that his MBA-qualified, credential-seeking buddy was signing up with YC presumably just to add to his blue ribbon collection.

With such articles what’s usually more interesting is the comments they elicit. Many who reacted responded with the same feelings of contempt; calling paper-chasers ‘hucksters’ and scoffing at their lack of passion and sincerity.

The tone among some carried this notion that startups were a special breed of entrepreneurs burdened with some sort of higher calling to liberate the world; money and honour being an afterthought.

Not being directly part of the startup circle, so-to-speak, I found the reaction amusing and frankly, rather foolish. Are people involved in startups turning into a sort of in-group? Do they really think of themselves as some kind of mutant-strain of businesses that are different from ‘regular’ enterprises?

If we look at the richest Internet companies today, once startups themselves, they are no less motivated by avarice and the bottomline, so why be so judgmental of Mr MBA treating the YC program as a way to gain credentials? I bet many talented individuals are going to have a go at it for the same reason if not a variety of reasons. As the program draws out, I suspect the number of participants will peter out by attrition anyway.

And who’s to say not coming up with a disruptive idea makes you less enterprising? Think of startups as team sports. There are some teams that innovate with the most creative gameplay that catch their opponents off-guard. There are teams that win by consistency and endurance, doing the same thing well over many years to pull ahead of the pack.

To cast aspersions on the motivations of others and to let silly prejudices limit participation seems discordant with the spirit of the Internet itself, where challenging convention is the order of the day and everyone is entitled to a shot at success.

To the ‘Microsoft Azure’ Cloud

To The Cloud: Powering An Enterprise introduces the concepts of cloud computing from a high-level and strategic standpoint. I’ve read quite a few tomes on cloud computing and I was interested to see how this one would stack up against the others.

The book is not too weighty in technical language so as not to be overwhelming and intimidating. However at ninety five pages, one might argue it is a bit sparse for a $30 book, if you purchase it at full price.

It is organized nicely around initiatives to get you moving with the cloud.

Chapter 1, Explore takes you through the process of understanding what the cloud is and what it has to offer.

Chapter 2, Envision puts you in the drivers seat, looking at the opportunities the cloud can offer in terms of solutions to current business problems.

Chapter 3, Enable discusses specifics of getting there, such as selecting a vendor or provider, training your team, and establishing new processes in your organization.

Finally in Chapter 4, we hit on real details of adopting the cloud in your organization. Will you move applications wholesale, or will you adopt a hybrid model? How will you redesign your applications to take care of automated scaling? What new security practices and processes will you put in place. The authors offer practical answers to these questions. At the end there is also an epilogue discussing emerging market opportunities for cloud computing, such as those in India.

One of the problems I had with the book is that although it doesn’t really position itself as a Microsoft Cloud book per se, that is really what the book aims at.

For example, Microsoft Azure is sort of the default platform throughout the book, whereas in reality most folks think of Amazon Web Services to be the sort of default when talking about cloud computing. Although specifically, Azure is really a platform, while AWS is Infrastructure or raw iron, that can run Linux based Operating Systems, or Windows Azure stuff.

Of course having a trio of Microsoft executives as authors gives a strong hint to readers to expect some plugging but a rewrite of the title would probably manage readers’ expectations better.

The other missing piece with this book is a chapter on tackling new challenges in the cloud. Cloud Computing – Azure or otherwise, brings challenges with respect to hardware as using the cloud means deploying across shared resources. For example it’s hard to deploy a high-performance RAID array or SAN solution devoted to one server in the cloud. This is a challenge on AWS as well, and continues to be a major adoption hurdle. It’s part of the commoditization puzzle, but it’s as yet not completely solved. Such a chapter to discuss mitigating against virtual server failures, using redundancy, and cloud components to increase availability would be useful.

Lastly, I found it a bit disconcerting that all of the testimonials were from fellow CTOs and CIOs of big firms, not independents or other industry experts. For example I would have liked to see George Reese of Enstratus, Thorsten von Eicken from Rightscale or John Engates from Rackspace provide a comment or two on the book.

Overall the book is a decent primer if you’re looking for some guidance on Microsoft Azure Cloud. It is not a comprehensive introduction to cloud computing and you’d definitely need other resources to get the full picture. At such a hefty sticker price, my advice is to pick this one up at the bargain bin.