Thoughts on Thinking
and 10 ways to burst your filter bubbles
I’m beginning to think I’m the lobster in the pot on the stove, soaking in the comfortable warm water, appreciating the accommodation and comfort I’ve been given, not realizing that the water is getting hotter and that the things that comfort me might actually be killing me.
Facebook tells advertisers that I am a white, liberal man with a beard who likes basketball, cycling and has a reasonable amount of disposable income. Facebook, of course, knows those things because I’ve told Facebook those things. And in turn, Facebook tells advertisers, who complete the circuit by showing me ads for beard oil and ball-safe shavers (yep, that’s a thing), liberal podcasts, NBA scores and highlights, local bike rides in my community, and quirky impulse buys like front-pocket wallets and vinyl records from artists I might like. It’s great! Facebook gets me. They know I don’t talk to my father, so they don’t show me pictures he’s tagged in. They know I’m with my wife most of the time, so they don’t show me her posts since I already know what they’re about. Everything with Facebook is just cozy.
The rest of the Internet has gotten pretty cozy too. Google knows the restaurant I want to order from before I’ve even finished typing the “The” at the beginning of “The Mayan” (the flautas are excellent). Google knows I’m probably going to want to watch some short videos while I eat, so YouTube has the latest batch of videos ready to go in my Recommendations queue: some John Oliver, some Rachel Maddow, some John Mayer live performances (good old white guy pop), and the latest Colbert monologue. When I’m done with YouTube, Netflix knows I’ll probably like After Life because I’ve previously liked The Office and Ricky Gervais’ standup specials. When it’s time for the short commute to work, Spotify pulls up my Discover Weekly with music that sounds an awful lot like what I was already listening to, but just slightly newer or more obscure. Ah yes, Jenny Lewis is kind of a new Stevie Nicks — good instinct, Spotify.
Come to think of it, real life is starting to feel this way too. My wife and I bought a beautiful historic home in a beautiful historic neighborhood about two years ago. We love being in the most progressive part of our state; our district recently elected an exceptional woman to the U.S. House, upsetting an incumbent conservative military veteran; and our neighborhood elected an African-American, gay public school teacher to the City Council. What a great feeling! We donated to both candidates, we love what they’re about and we’re so happy to live in a part of the world where, finally, people get it right by agreeing with us.
But something strange has started happening these last few months: I’m finding that I don’t really like the new Ricky Gervais show. Those YouTube videos are starting to feel really repetitive — some of my favorite comic minds are telling the same jokes about the same topics because, well, they’re fighting for the same audience. I’m not really into the last several Discover Weekly lists, and I can’t quite figure out why it thinks I like this stuff. Maybe I left Spotify on and left the room, and Spotify took my lack-of-skips as an embrace rather than an accident.
I’m finding that I don’t actually know what I like, I only know what all of my bubbles tell me I should like.
And what’s the origin point for those likes, anyway? Something I clicked on in 2006, 2012? A TV show I read an article about in 2014? When’s the last time I felt challenged in my beliefs or interests, or for that matter, when’s the last time I changed my mind?
I don’t pretend to be the first or only or even best person writing about the filter bubbles we’ve created, about confirmation bias and about tribalism. I’m not going to try to motivate you with a clickbait article on the 10 steps to reclaiming your privacy, either. Read The Big Sort. Read Zucked. They’re better than I could ever be at explaining these concepts, telling you why you should care and suggesting how you can take back control. What I would offer you, instead, are simply some things to ponder:
- Maybe algorithms aren’t your friend, they’re your dealer, serving up the things they know you crave in order to raise your tolerance and keep you on the hook. I’m looking at you, Spotify and Facebook.
- Maybe unfollowing or muting all the people you disagree with isn’t the best way to handle the situation. I’m not talking about engaging with trolls or allowing people to incite rage in you, but if someone has a different (but well-intentioned, inclusive) opinion, don’t filter it out. Read it. Give the thought some space in your brain, consider how it makes you feel, and then choose to dismiss it or let it grow.
- Maybe some of the conveniences we all value come with too high of a cost. Is Apple Maps better than Google Maps or Waze? Hardly. But could you get by with Apple Maps knowing that it isn’t collecting all your location data and sharing it with advertisers and other partners? Is Siri that much dumber than Alexa? Absolutely it is. But do you need to give a company fly on-the-wall access to everything you say, do, watch, search for and buy in exchange for an accurate weather report or an ability to turn off your lights? You probably don’t. Siri’s fine. Siri is dumb because it’s not compiling everything you’ve ever done.
- Maybe it’s time to try something new. Switch music services — try a month of Apple Music and see if you find something way outside your comfort zone that you really like. Do Apple Music’s human DJs “get me” as well as Spotify’s algorithms? Not even close. But they challenge and broaden my taste in a way that an algorithm can’t. Switch news 0utlets, and by news outlets I do not mean Fox News. In fact, I don’t mean MSNBC or CNN either. Spend some time on NPR. BBC World News. C-Span. Read a respected, trusted regional newspaper. Maybe real news is worth paying for. Maybe there’s a degree of mutual accountability that comes along with that.
- Don’t trust Amazon’s recommendations — try your library’s recommendations instead. Find something a human has a personal connection with and see what you learn from it. Be surprised. Be challenged. Be disappointed every now and then — it happens and it’s not the end of the world.
- Leave your physical bubble for a little while. Get out of town. Explore a different part of the planet that isn’t just a bigger or smaller or different-language-speaking version of your world. If you’re in an urban area, go somewhere very rural and spend a weekend, or vice versa. Instead of spending your vacation at a resort, spend it in a neighborhood. Instead of visiting museums the whole time (though that’s a great way to spend your time), volunteer at a local homeless shelter or nonprofit while you’re in their town. Could you make good things happen while you’re somewhere new?
- Talk to people outside your bubble. Is your Uber driver in an army hat? Ask about her service. Is there a bible in the passenger door? Ask why it’s there and what it means to him. Is there an ACLU sticker on someone’s car? Ask the person what issue or experience compelled them to support the organization. Most of my close friends didn’t come from mutual interests and compatibility, they’ve come from meaningful conversations at unexpected times.
- Maybe everything you’ve ever done doesn’t need to be online, publicly-available, forever. Is there any value whatsoever in a record of every Facebook Poke you sent or received? Those tweets from 2016 — are you sure you want those around? Do you really still need Page updates from the Black Eyed Peas? Why is it that the very nature of social media — instant, disposable content and conversation — also required keeping a permanent record of all of it? Clean house. Delete those old posts (Chrome extensions like Social Book Post Manager can help automate this), clear those irrelevant Likes and leave those Groups you unfollowed years ago. You don’t need that stuff anymore, and advertisers certainly don’t.
- Limit the amount of data you allow out into the world going forward. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t post to social media, or use whatever browser or device you want, but you should actively consider the decisions you make and the consent you give. Limit Ad Tracking on your browser or device. Use your email address to log in, not those Facebook or Google Connect logins (that tie the data from all these platforms together to bundle and share). Consider that certain posts, tweets or photos are better limited to certain groups rather than accessible publicly. Use AdBlockers like uBlock Origin and extensions like Ghostery to limit the amount of data you send out just from visiting a website or clicking a link. These things in no way alter your day-to-day experience, and yes, the real root of this recommendation is regarding your privacy, but in this context it really is about leaving yourself open to other perspectives, results and opportunities out on the Internet — not just what fits perfectly into your persona.
- Maybe you don’t actually know what you want, what you like or what’s for you. That means the information you generate and share with all your services might be inaccurate or uninspired. Discovering things weekly for yourself and putting yourself in new, sometimes uncomfortable situations, can be so vital to finding out what sparks your interests and passions.
We talk about diversity a lot in the workplace — the idea that a board room of people who all look and think and act alike is probably not where innovation is going to happen. It’s true that great ideas come from chaos, from diversity and from breaking the routine. Think about this in your own head: if your brain’s board room is filled with a bunch of cells that all agree with one another, echo the same jokes, play the same songs, visit the same stores and travel to the same places, why would you expect inspiration or creativity?
Bring some diversity to your mental workplace.
I’m not saying that implementing or considering these thoughts will change your mind. I’m not saying being uncomfortable is preferred to being comfortable. I’m not remotely suggesting that you can generate some compelling advocacy campaign that brings the other side over to yours. I’m suggesting that it’s time to mix things up a little bit, snap out of your bubble and try some new things. It’s time to figure out what you believe, what you value, what you like and what moves you, politically, musically, spiritually, socially, economically. Don’t let an algorithm tell you what you’re supposed to listen to. Don’t let a persona profile tell you what you’re supposed to buy. Don’t let a party tell you who you’re supposed to vote for. Don’t let a church tell you what you’re supposed to believe in.
I haven’t thought about what I think about in a very long time. Have you?