Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The “Uncanny Valley of Personalization”: The You Loop

“The You Loop” focuses on two major, intertwined topics. The first of these is the de-anonymization of the Web, that is, the transition from a Web where you were fairly anonymous and your identity was whatever you said it was (and your real-world race, gender, location, and so forth either did not matter or were not easily discoverable) to a Facebook Web where you have only one identity across all spheres of your life (work, play, etc.), where that identity is your “Facebook identity,” and where your entire online experience is filtered through Facebook and Facebook’s idea of your identity.

The second topic, personalization of the Web, ties directly into this theme. When websites such as Facebook or Google create or aggregate an identity for each user, those sites are then able to personalize each user’s experience based on their presumed known likes and dislikes. However, as the chapter points out, there are gaps in the way these sites generate their visions of a user’s identity, and the resulting “identity” may not fully represent the user. (Google’s method is click-based, while Facebook’s is share-based, but as Pariser points out, “There’s a big difference between ‘you are what you click’ and ‘you are what you share.’” (p. 114)) This raises a lot of questions related to identity formation, bias, the use of algorithms to predict a user’s wants and choices, and the echo-chamber effect.

Throughout this chapter, Pariser makes some powerful arguments. Namely, that fully customized/personalized Web resources and information access can not only empower us or limit us depending on the personalization schemes in use, but they can actually, ultimately, change who we are as people. By limiting our access to some information and boosting our access to the things we enjoy or see as important, we can end up in an echo chamber of sorts that reinforces and alters our beliefs. The things we see on a daily basis become more important to us, and the things we don’t see regularly lose their importance. Because of this effect, he argues that both Google and Facebook’s approaches to creating identity are flawed and create limited, poor representations of who we actually are. Representations which have the potential to become who we actually are.

Background Information

  • When: The Filter Bubble was originally published in 2011. This puts it slightly before the NSA surveillance backlash about privacy and large-scale information-gathering, but when people were starting to become more aware of targeted advertising and personalization online.
  • Author: Eli Pariser is an internet activist. He's also the chief executive of Upworthy, board president of MoveOn.org, and co-founder of Avaaz.org. There’s a fairly detailed section About Eli on the Filter Bubble website. There’s also an interesting Q&A with the author on the Amazon.com page for The Filter Bubble.
  • Reception: As evidenced by the Press/Praise page on the Filter Bubble website, reviews and perceptions of the book were and are generally very good. It was a New York Times bestseller. Reviews on Amazon.com and found via a quick Google search are also generally very good. It seems to be regarded as an important (introductory-level) piece of the debate on privacy and personalization of the Web.

Eli Pariser, "The You Loop," in The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is hiding from you (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), pp. 109-135.

“The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You,” Amazon.com. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1594203008/

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