In Defense of Filter Bubbles
Why I’m sticking to my own digital neighborhoods
As we prepare for the ramping up of the next American election cycle, I wanted to reflect about my own digital behavior the last time around, and what I’m going to do differently this time.
The 2016 American Elections were an important lesson about the dangers of filter bubbles. By handing over control of our feeds to algorithms, we’d unknowingly trained social media platforms to reflect our own biases and beliefs back to us. Trapped in echo chambers of our construction, we shared and liked stories and statuses of people who just like us. We grew more confident in our world views and become entrenched in our outlooks, convinced that we were right.
After the election, I made a conscious effort to curate my information consumption to include a diverse array of perspectives, including those I vehemently disagreed with. I challenged myself to remain open-minded and to focus on points of commonality instead of differences.
At the end that same year, I removed most of those sources out of my feed.
Here’s what I learned over the last 12 months:
- Outrage has become a monetized revenue stream. Many extreme-leaning content producers (on both sides) aren’t interested in presenting a reasonable point of view. They want rage clicks. They want to fire up their own base by writing heinous content that encourages racism, sexism, and intolerance. Further more, they benefit when those who disagree with them share their content, even if it’s to point out how awful it is. I didn’t want to give them the stage. Stop helping these people increase their reach by delivering it to your own followers. This went for mainstream media too.
- There’s no real purpose to consuming this information. Beyond increasing your own awareness of what’s being said, what’s the real value add? Has anyone, in the history of the Internet managed to change another person’s belief or political view based on an exchange in the comments section? Do I really need to hear Tomi Lahren rant about how terrible universal healthcare would be? No. Her content adds zero value to my life.
- It’s anxiety-inducing. 2019 seems to hit peak toxicity in terms of the volume of vitriol. Reading these types of comments, tweets, and articles had a negative impact on my state of mind. As we continue to advocate and fight for women, minorities, LGBTQ, Refugees, immigrants, migrants, civil rights, and the environment, we need to make sure we prioritize self-care. We won’t be able to show up for each other if we get so overwhelmed and forget to take care of ourselves first.
Maintaining Social Media Sanity
As our digital media landscape becomes more fragmented, we must develop information consumption best practices that are enable us to navigate this ecosystem without drowning in toxicity and polarization.
A few tips:
- Once you know, you know. It was disappointing to learn that Nazis are a a thing again. But, as I’m now up to speed on this depressing development, I don’t need to keep seeing it. I know what they are saying, and unless it’s anything new, I’ve been briefed enough, thanks.
- Divide & Conquer. I like to keep tabs on what the “other side” is saying but I don’t need it polluting my feed on a constant basis. I’ve experimented with both using private Twitter lists, and creating an entirely new Twitter account that is devoted to following “the other” allowing me to dip in when needed. The list worked well because it gave me the control to decide when and how I engage with these people and their ideas. On Facebook I just filed those people in a list. I don’t need to be exposed to Aunt Susan’s racist rants everyday. I check in when it makes sense.
- Double down on your people. Now that I know what’s out there, I’m infinitely more appreciative of organizations and people that are trying to make a difference. Show up and support these people and their work. From Planned Parenthood and the ACLU to Journalists Without Borders and ASPCA — there’s an endless amount of causes to support. I made it a point to engage and share content that was adding positivity to the causes I cared about. Our attention is our most valuable resource, let’s invest it wisely.
- In pursuit of reason. I focused on people finding quality people who shared different viewpoints but who were interested in having a rational, polite, exchange of ideas. Believe it or not, they DO exist.
- Participate in the real world. It’s easy to get swallowed up in the enormity of many of the challenges we are facing. It’s normal to feel helpless and overwhelmed. Just remember this: you don’t have to do everything, just do something. Especially if it’s more than just a retweet or a share. Fill your feed with accounts that enable you to give back in small and manageable ways. Even if it’s just $5.
Here’s the thing. No matter how much we want to, it’s too late to reverse the radical polarization that’s happened. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, and I’m not sure it’s productive to try. Instead, we must turn our bubbles into communities of strength. To focus our attention and energy on rallying, mobilizing, and acting in support of those vision of a tolerant world are aligned with our own.
We’ve let social media become a runaway train, wreaking destruction on our society. It’s time to take back control, and to be more strategic about who we connect with and how we do it.
Since I’ve cleaned up my feed, I’ve felt so much better. It’s time we accept our current information ecosystem reality and adapt our strategies to take advantage of how these tools can unite instead of divide us.
Rahaf Harfoush is a Digital Anthropologist and Author focusing on human potential in the age of exponential tech. Her new book, Hustle & Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed with Work is available now.