From echo chambers and filter bubbles to information bubbles

Yes, it’s difficult
This is the second post (outburst) of my master thesis story. Here is the introduction :

Calm down.

Is everyone becoming crazy about filter bubbles? Or am I in my bubble?

It’s quite important to me that people become aware of the idea of bubbles and have the will to share their understanding. But I feel people get the concept, freak out and then write about their fear.

This is the Internet

Filter chambers and echo bubbles

Yes, mixing is nice

The echo chamber in short

I discovered the “echo chamber on the Internet” concept in 2014. I was interning in a media and a journalist made a review of Cass Sunstein’s book (2001). Sunstein argues that the structure of the Internet, with big companies and the winner-takes-all hierarchy, leads to silos and balkanisation. Everyone on the Internet can only see and interact with content and people in their limited space/in a limited space/in their shared space. Ideas flutter in circle… A Plato’s cave remake.

You have no chance

The filter bubble in brief

In 2011, Eli Pariser revisits the echo chamber concept and warns us about the negative impacts of personalization in his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. He thinks recommender systems take us away of serendipity and ubiquity because of their business aim. To keep us interacting with their products, those are designed to give us content we like. The business of attention.

Limits of both ideas — Why talk about information bubbles?

Cass Sunstein and Eli Pariser seem to underestimate — at least they don’t emphasize — larger effects.

The bubbles were not born with the Internet, not even with Usenet. The information seeking and reception process is biased, no matter where it takes place: online or not.

In 1948, Lazarsfeld et al. published a scientific article which theorizes the selective exposure concept for news about the US presidential election. They found that people are reading and listening to information which reinforce (reinforcement theory) their opinions and ideas.

In comparison with the formal media of communication, personal relationships are potentially more influential for two reasons: their coverage is greater and they have certain psychological advantages over the formal media. Source

In 1957, Festinger developed this theory and demonstrated information that don’t match our beliefs provoke a “cognitive dissonance”, an effect we try to avoid.

According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it, and achieve consonance (i.e. agreement). Source

The last main study worth talking about is the one by McPhearson et al. (2001), “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks”. The results are in the title: we regroup around our similarities.

Similarity breeds connection. The homophily principle structures network ties of every type, including marriage, friendship, work, advice, support, information transfer, exchange, comembership, and other types of relationship. The result is that people’s personal networks are homogeneous with regard to many sociodemographic, behavioral, and intrapersonal characteristics. Homophily limits people’s social worlds in a way that has powerful implications for the information they receive, the attitudes they form, and the interactions they experience. Source

With these three concepts observed before the rise of online social networks and personalization algorithms, we can put the effects of echo chambers and filter bubbles in perspective.

What if the Internet (still) leads to discoveries?

We can remain pessimistic, continue to grumble that we are all in our online Truman Show and try to exit the (glass) cage. If we believe in filter bubbles and echo chambers, the solution is very easy: throw your laptop through the window! Finito.

Personally, I totaly agree to wasting less time on some addictive s*** online. However, we should remember how the Internet makes us discover new topics, new people, new cultures, etc. As Barberá et al. (2015) demonstrated it:

We estimated ideological preferences of 3.8 million Twitter users and, using a data set of nearly 150 million tweets concerning 12 political and nonpolitical issues, explored whether online communication resembles an “echo chamber” (as a result of selective exposure and ideological segregation) or a “national conversation.” We observed that information was exchanged primarily among individuals with similar ideological preferences in the case of political issues but not many other current events. With respect to both political and nonpolitical issues, liberals were more likely than conservatives to engage in cross-ideological dissemination […] Overall, we conclude that previous work may have overestimated the degree of ideological segregation in social-media usage. Source

To sum up my readings

I think Zuiderveen Borgesius et al. (2016) came up with the best conclusion.

Some fear that personalised communication can lead to information cocoons or filter bubbles. For instance, a personalised news website could give more prominence to conservative or liberal media items, based on the (assumed) political interests of the user. As a result, users may encounter only a limited range of political ideas. We synthesise empirical research on the extent and effects of self-selected personalisation, where people actively choose which content they receive, and pre-selected personalisation, where algorithms personalise content for users without any deliberate user choice. We conclude that at present there is little empirical evidence that warrants any worries about filter bubbles. Source

So, we can’t really talk about effective filter bubbles resulting from algorithmic personalization. Echo chambers obviously exist, but their essence is not an Internet-issue. To put it in a nutshell, we should answer “maybe” to the question: “do the filter bubble and echo chamber effects exist on the web?”

So, the concept of “information bubble” seems appropriate to unite two partial ideas: “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers”.
Bubbles exist off- and online. However, we think they have a specific shape online
… We will go deeper soon!

Edit: Slate seems to be interested in studies about the filter bubble effect relativism

There are things we can do against bubbles, even if we can’t decide if they’re mainly a “human”, “structural” or algorithmic effect

In the past few years, many projects were created to make people aware about “bubbles” online.

Some of them focus on the representation of bubbles while others want you to pop them (mostly your political ones).

Go ahead!

You can fight against your brain and minimize the cognitive dissonance effect. Some ideas: create yourself a daily news-digest with different sources, join groups on Facebook which defend other points of view, follow random people on Twitter. In fact, you don’t need to find the “the real other side”. To gain access to different voices than the usual ones is enough.

In this direction, Flaxman et al. (2016) study results underline how people are not locked into extreme-ideas bubbles (as we could imagine) but have mainly access to “centric” and vapid news.

The vast majority of online news consumption is accounted for by individuals simply visiting the home pages of their favorite, typically mainstream, news outlets, tempering the consequences — both positive and negative — of recent technological changes. We thus uncover evidence for both sides of the debate, while also finding that the magnitude of the effects is relatively modest. Source

You can also study your friend’s networks on Facebook and followees’ network on Twitter. I’m pretty sure it will highlight uncredible things! 
Note: I’m doing it right now and I will publish my analyses here on Medium.

Wow, awesome

But the first thing to do is to stop your “filter bubble everywhere” paranoïa ;)

Where I am at in my master thesis

Topic choice > Literature reading > State of the art > Problematic > Methods > Experiences (co-design) > Maths & Visualisation > Writing > Master thesis defence

References (first cited above)

Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Republic. com 2.0. Princeton University Press.

Pariser, E. (2011). The filter bubble: How the new personalized web is changing what we read and how we think. Penguin.

Lazarsfeld, P. F., Berelson, B., & Gaudet, H. (1944). The people\’s choice; how the voter makes up his mind in a presidential campaign.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 1). Stanford university press.

McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. M. (2001). Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks. Annual review of sociology, 27(1), 415–444.

Barberá, P., Jost, J. T., Nagler, J., Tucker, J. A., & Bonneau, R. (2015). Tweeting from left to right: Is online political communication more than an echo chamber?. Psychological science, 26(10), 1531–1542.

Zuiderveen Borgesius, F. J., Trilling, D., Moeller, J., Bodó, B., de Vreese, C. H., & Helberger, N. (2016). Should We Worry about Filter Bubbles?.

Flaxman, S., Goel, S., & Rao, J. (2016). Filter bubbles, echo chambers, and online news consumption. Public Opinion Quarterly, nfw006.

PS: This Medium post may be funny, but I’m working very seriously on the topic ;)

PPS: Thanks to Cécile Almonté for the editing!

PPPS: You like it? Share it! Thanks ❤

PPPPS: I discovered I was listening to “Echo” from NONONO during last edits… I’m in a trap