Or How to Broaden Your Range but Stay True to Yourself
The Internet has the potential to expose us to new experiences and perspectives. Our everyday experience of the web may be quite the opposite though.
The things you click, like, and post result in more of the same. Netflix suggests new things to watch based on what you have already watched. Twitter will suggest who to follow based on other people you follow. Facebook tailors your newsfeed based on who you interact with. Google shows different search results based on what you have searched before.
Personalization algorithms create a safe, predictable space. Rather than making our world bigger, our world shrinks a little. Call it an echo chamber or a filter bubble, it’s an anxiety that personalization narrows our exposure to new ideas and even spreads misinformation. In this contentious election year, perhaps we are all tempted to stay inside our quiet bubble.
One of my friends, Oliver, articulated what we may be thinking these days:
“Since I discovered how to unfollow, my feed has become suddenly peaceful. I originally did it with a plan to go back after elections are over, but it is certainly tempting not to.”
Whether we crave retreat or worry about limiting ourselves, it would be good if we had a little more control. Perhaps in the near future, there will be an easy way to see how sites are personalized for you and make adjustments.
For now, there is still plenty you can do to counteract the loud and insistent sameness. Here’s how you can get more diversity into your news feeds and still be true to yourself.
Get to Know Your Data Double
You know the feeling. You see an ad and it’s way off base, or maybe it’s too close for comfort. You wonder what other assumptions are embedded in your experience. We all experience this uncanny valley of personalization, and it might seem like there is nothing we can do about it.
Most of us don’t spend time playing around with settings. It’s more appealing to “game the algorithm” by clicking on new things or switching to private mode. In just a few minutes though, you can understand and even reshape your experience.
In Facebook, head over to your ad profile to discover what Facebook thinks you like. You can do the same on Google. Even if you use an ad blocker, it’s educational to see yourself through the eyes of the algorithm. You may not know exactly which activities spawned these “interests”, but you can adjust them accordingly.
Check in with Your Weak Ties
Facebook will show you more from the people you interact with, whether you just like their posts or have an extended conversation. After a while, some of your friends may drop out of the feed entirely.
There is one feature that is equal opportunity though — birthdays. Don’t just offer a perfunctory birthday greeting. Take some time to visit their profile. Consider their point of view. Even engage in a conversation.
Your weak ties are a good way to get range, according to Facebook. There is a good chance that some of your friends have an opposing political affiliation, a different spiritual outlook, or are simply interested in things you haven’t paid much attention to.
So, maintaining contact with acquaintances or people you friended on a whim may be good for your world view. If you visit your weak ties once in a while, you are likely to see a wider range of posts and updates in your feed, too.
Click Outside Your Comfort Zone
If you are looking for your feed or your recommendations to challenge you, you need to click outside your comfort zone once in a while. Click on something you are only mildly interested in. Comment on something that you would normally ignore.
Make a conscious effort to train the algorithms into showing you a broader range of interests. If your feed occasionally makes you pause and reflect, or even infuriates you, you are doing it right.
Follow Someone Unexpected
On many social media platforms, especially Twitter and Instagram, following and unfollowing is a friction-free way to introduce a little friction into your thinking. After searching your existing contacts for people to follow, look at who the weakest of your ties are following. Another approach is to look at trending hashtags and find people making smart, insightful, maybe even maddening tweets or posts. Follow them for a while.
People with some of the same interests may hold opposing points of view, which can introduce a new perspective without losing some common ground. If you are looking to break out of the echo chamber, this can be a good way to do it.
Try Something Really New
When you download a new app or try a new site, you are often asked for your interests. You will probably gravitate to the same topics. We all do. It makes our experience more personal, but it may not challenge us.
Next time, choose a few topics that are loosely related, or maybe not related at all, to your favorite causes, people, or hobbies. Or, consider joining a new group around a fringe interest. it doesn’t have to be political. Whether it’s about pets or travel or health, you’ll be exposed to new people and new communities. It will teach your social networks that your interests are more wide-ranging.
Broadening rather than paring back may seem counterintuitive. While our impulse may be to tune out the noise in this age of distraction, sometimes you have to let new ideas and people in. Once you do, you’ll notice that challenging yourself can create new connections and deeper understanding. And that is something that will benefit us all.
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