Our Very Human Need to Pop “Online Filter Bubbles”

A long time ago, when I was a nerd in grad school (totally not a nerd anymore), one of the concepts that I did the most research on is the idea of the “filter bubble.” That is to say, does the massive amount of content on the web – and the means in which we go about accessing that content – either reshape or concrete people’s pre-existing worldviews?

Two professors – Bruce Bimber of the University of California and Richard Davis of Brigham Young University – have been exploring the idea of the online filter bubble since the 2000 presidential election.

In their study “The Internet In Campaign 2000: How Political Web Sites Reinforce Partisan Engagement,” they put this quite elegantly – thanks to a quote from singer-songwriter (and household favorite) Paul Simon:

“People tend to select out for attention those stories and claims that confirm their existing beliefs and predispositions. And when confronted with news or other information that tends to conflict with their assumptions about public life, people are especially likely to disbelieve what they see or hear.

These political habits call to mind lyrics to Paul Simon s 1970 song entitled The Boxer: ‘a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.'”

A few years later, Bimber and Davis talked about it further in their book Campaigning Online: The Internet in U.S. Elections.  Narrowcasting – the niche version of broadcasting, in which a fragmented media environment leads to the ability to access content designed for a smaller, more specific audience – is “one of the defining features of the Internet.” When users have a massive and nearly infinite number of outlets and diverse opinions, they’re more able to seek out stories that interest them. But as a result, they consume content that reinforces their current worldview.

In a TED talk released this week, Moveon.org founder Eli Pariser talks about this very topic.  Looking at the idea of one’s personalized Google search results or a “relevant” Facebook feed (which are all based on the idea of what we’re clicking when these pages return results to us), Pariser says that we’re increasingly becoming in danger of “algorythmically editing the web.”

As a result, Pariser says, we’re moving “toward a world in which the Internet is showing us what it thinks what we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.” He calls this a “filter bubble,” which he says is “your own unique universe of information that you live in online” – but a universe where you don’t decide what gets in and you don’t see who gets edited out.

Watch the talk here:

The “online filter bubble” problem that Pariser describes demonstrates the disconnect between “our future aspirational selves and our more impulsive present selves.”

Human behavior doesn’t always sync up with what our dreams, goals, and visions are.  What we believe morally certainly helps us to endeavor to behave in certain ways, but when we’re clicking around the web, are these even decisions that we’re conscious of?  I wonder how much of my human aspirations are displayed as I consume the web.  It would be a snapshot, for sure – just like, say, looking through a garbage bag – but I’m willing to bet that it’s just the crumbs and wrappers of all of the Internet junk food that I eat on an ongoing basis.

As Pariser points out, this idea points to the need that we need to reevaluate the mythology of the Internet –  that it will be some great democracy enhancer that connects us with everything that’s happening.  This isn’t the case if Internet algorithms edit out content that challenges us or causes us to re-evaluate concepts that we believe in.

As humans, we long for more than just correlations about relevancy.  We need an experience that mixes the idea of snack food-like relevancy with the sustenance of our human aspirations.


They Came From The Internet!

The next time you’re in a real-life group setting, beware.  Look around.  Be suspicious.  If you look closely enough, you may find something that you least suspected: many of the group’s active participants may be using this thing that some call “the Internet.”

Crazy, crazy, crazy, you tell me.

In fact, I hear this a lot.  Many that I interact with have an inherent skepticism that online people are, in fact, real life people.

But this isn’t true – at least, not according to a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.  Their new study, entitled “The Social Side of the Internet,” cites research that Internet users are “more active participants in their [real life] groups than other adults.”

Here’s what they found:

  • 69% of Internet users have attended meetings or events for groups that they are active in, as compared to 54% of non-Internet users.
  • 64% of Internet users have volunteered their time to a group that they are active in, as compared to 47% of non-Internet users.
  • 60% of Internet users have contributed money to a group they are active in, as compared to 50% of non-Internet users.
  • 34% of Internet users have taken a leadership role in a group they are active in, as compared to 19% of non-Internet users.

Holy moly, we’ve let them out. Someone has let the Internet people out of their basements, and they are invading our real-life groups.  We must put a stop to this.

But seriously, the truth is that “online people” have always been a part of real-life groups.  They just also happen to use that Internet machine.  Countless studies have shown that people that use the Internet are opinion leaders.

I like to tell a story of when this notion first clicked for me.  Back in college, I was on the web and came across a potential presidential candidate that you may have heard of: Howard Dean.  His candidacy resonated with me, and after a short period of time I attended my first Howard Dean Meetup.  When I got there, I found that there were many people like me.  They read about his campaign online, and were motivated to show up – in-person – to see if we could get this candidate elected to office.  In the end, many of us became a “real life” group in the process.

With that, I would suggest an important point: activating people online doesn’t mean that as a “New Media Guy,” I’m merely looking for people to be active in just the online realm.  Rather, activism – especially in the 2010’s – needs to be both online and offline.  In fact, I don’t see them as independent of each other.

Pew’s research brings up some very important points that hopefully break some stereotypes ingrained in many people.  Internet users are not lazy.  They show up in person, volunteer their time, and take leadership roles.  In fact, dare I suggest, Internet people may just happen to be the types of “offline” activists that many organizations covet.


What Happens When They Expect “Fake”?

There’s a lot of hoopla around a “scandal” that has broken out when it comes to transparency.

According to MobileCrunch, a leading mobile communication and technology site, a PR firm called Reverb Communications has “managed to find astounding success on Apple’s App Store for its clients.”  One of their tactics, especially, involves hiring “a team of interns to trawl iTunes and other community forums posing as real users, and has them write positive reviews for their clients.”

This development in itself is startling to some, but in reality, I’m not terribly surprised.  My younger brother, who just wrapped up his college degree in marketing, once had an internship within the mobile gaming industry, and once told me this practice is totally rampant within that community.  Completely commonplace.

For one, there’s a huge issue in subjecting interns to performing unethical communications.  These interns, too eager to please in a hostile job market, are being taught that this is a professional method in conducting online marketing.  Whereas these firms should be teaching basic, standard fundamentals like transparency – methods that ensure that the client whom they hired is protected and that their brand is safe – they’re instead teaching future marketing, communications and public relations professionals how to take shortcuts.  They’re ingraining these types of practices within our industry’s future.

But, I think there’s also a larger issue here.  When talking to my brother about these practices, he essentially told me that these kinds of practices should be expected by the consumer.  He didn’t mean it as a “this is actually an ethical practice” argument, but rather, that younger people (look at me, I’m not even 26, and I’m talking about “younger people”) completely expect these communications to be fake.

For one, it makes a communication professional’s job harder.  The burden of proof is on us to show that what we’re doing is, in fact, real.

For instance, one campaign I’m currently working on is called the Campaign for Quality Services.  It’s about adding the voice of food service workers to the debate around passing an improved Child Nutrition Act (end plug).  In the campaign, since my goal is about adding their voice, I’m striving to ensure that the voice is authentic and prevalent throughout.

In building the site, one of my first goals was to collect quotes and stories from workers – real, actual quotes from interviews and conversations that we shared.  But, what I’ve found is that simply adding the quote to a picture of the worker isn’t enough.  The audience simply doesn’t believe that the quote really comes from that worker whose picture is on my site.  Instead, I’ve found that I have to move to video on various pages.  The burden of proof is simply on me.

So, in essence, when a company isn’t transparent, when they lie about who they are and who they represent, it doesn’t just damage their company, and it doesn’t just damage their clients.  It hurts all of us within the field, who then have to take the next step in creating an environment where we’re believed.

The good news out of this, however, is that it’s situations like this that challenge us, and force us to think outside of the box.  It pushes us to innovate and to strive to create content that is more real and more authentic.  It forces is to really live by the best practices we preach, and to work to develop and discover new best practices.

In that way, perhaps there is some good in these developments after all?


Should Troops with PTSD Get The Purple Heart?

Here’s an issue that’s been near to my heart for a while. My bachelor’s degree is in psychology, and I strongly considered becoming a psychologist as late as my senior year of college. In grad school, I worked on a short-form documentary about milblogging – military blogging – and one of the main goals was to explore why it was a growing phenomenon. One of the reasons we uncovered was that blogging is a catharsis, and due to the high prevalence of post-traumatic syndrome in veterans, journal-writing is a self-therapy employed by many.

If you’d like, you can watch the documentary here.

According to multiple sources, the Pentagon has reached a decision not to award the Purple Heart to active-duty members or veterans of our military who suffer with PTSD.

Their rationale?

“The Purple Heart recognizes those individuals wounded to a degree that requires treatment by a medical officer, in action with the enemy or as the result of enemy action where the intended effect of a specific enemy action is to kill or injure the service member.”

“(PTSD) is not a wound intentionally caused by the enemy from an outside force or agent, but is a secondary effect caused by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event.”

“Based on the definition of a wound, ‘an injury to any part of the body from an outside force or agent,’ other Purple Heart award criteria, and 76 years of precedent, the Purple Heart has been limited to award for physical wounds, not psychological wounds.”

“Current medical knowledge and technologies do not establish PTSD as objectively and routinely as would be required for this award at this time.”

I would, of course, dispute all of these findings.

In traditional warfare, the goal of the enemy was, indeed, to “kill or injure the service member.” But tactical warfare has expanded to include psychological warfare. If our enemies are classified as “terrorists,” what is their goal? Of course – it’s to increase “terror.” That’s the primary goal, not a “secondary effect.” On the complete, polar opposite side of the spectrum, what was the goal of our “Shock and Awe” operation in Iraq? The name itself is explanatory. The goal in any modern military offensive is to strike at a psychological level first and foremost.

We also need to expand our definition of what a “wound” is. There’s not much of a debate in the medical community: the psychological is also physical. In PTSD, neural pathways are indeed rewired. Thoughts of those suffering from the disorder are processed in a different manner. There’s a physical change in levels of neurotransmitters. Ask anyone with PTSD if they have wounds. They’ll tell you that their wounds are far, far worse than any physical one. Physical wounds can ultimately be repaired (for the most part), but many with PTSD live and suffer with their wounds for the rest of their lives.

I’d also dispute the notion that there is no objective way to establish a presence of PTSD in a human being. The DSM-IV, the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual,” had extremely objective and rigorous criteria that must be evaluated to diagnose the prevalence of PTSD. It’s quite systematic. Take a look at the criteria yourself.

Ultimately, we should look at was the original goal that was intended with the Purple Heart. My belief is that it was designed to honor courage, recognize strength through adversity, and identify those who have overcome unimaginable struggles. Is that not what military heroes who battle PTSD should be appreciated for?

One thing that I should add: although I’m disappointed by the decision, I do, however, strongly respect Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ exploration of the subject. It turns out that the notion of awarding Purple Hearts to those who suffer from PTSD was suggested as a question during a briefing back in May. That suggestion prompted this panel to explore the option. Ultimately, it was a suggestion that was taken seriously, and I commend Secretary Gates for his sincere effort in evaluating its merit.

What’s your take on this? In your view, does PTSD constitute a “wound” worthy of the Purple Heart?


Lessons Learned in 2008

Happy 2009! We’re all back at work after enjoying some (but not enough) time off. My time helped me to reflect on this last year and draw some conclusions.

Among them, I found five lessons that I learned over the course of 2008. I thought I’d share them with everyone:

Lesson #1: You don’t have to be the best.
What a lesson. No, you don’t have to be “the best.” Simply put, nobody is “the best.” Not only is it an impossible thing to attain (it’s 100% subjective, I’d say), but trying to achieve that will just drive you crazy in the end.

You just have to be yourself and believe in yourself. Strive to be “better.” Plus, it’s lonely at the top, and who really wants to be lonely? Not you.

Lesson #2: You’re not responsible for saving the world.
“Changing the world” and “making a difference” is a nice motive, but you don’t have to put the weight of the world on your shoulders. It’s a noble idea, but it’s too idealistic and unfair to do that to yourself.

You’re not responsible for the fate of the universe, nor could you ever control it. Instead, try to make change in good, small ways, or as best as you can. Leave the rest to Barack Obama (ha), and don’t let it consume you or worry about it all too much.

Lesson #3: What you need and what you want are very different things.
What you need vs. what you want – it’s a classic battle, and confusing to figure out which is which. Sometimes, you think you need something, but it turns out that that’s driven by just “want” or “ego” (see lesson #1). It can deceive and tempt you, especially when it’s in reach, and it can create a big mess. Recognize which is which, and you won’t make those mistakes.

Lesson #4: Plans are good, but don’t hold yourself hostage to them.
A wise man, John Lennon (ever hear of him?) once said, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” He, unfortunately, didn’t get to see old age, so I hold those words especially valuable.

Don’t let your plan cause you to miss out on life’s plan for you. Have guidelines, and don’t get dismayed if things don’t happen exactly as you want them to, or as you envisioned them to go. Not everything is in your control. Things happen, they’re part of life, and you learn a lot from them. Don’t view those situations as “setbacks,” but as “normal course” that everyone experiences. Above all, believe in yourself and know that everything will unfold as is should.

Lesson #5: Despite the Worst Situations, You’re Hard to Break.
In 2008, I’ve learned that despite the worst (or what I perceive as “the worst”), I can get through anything – any bad news, any situation – and it only makes me stronger and more knowledgeable about myself. My close friends know that 2008 has brought me more than a few surprises – some good, some bad, and everything in-between – many about myself, some about things family members were going through, and so on.

Over the course of these events, I’ve learned what to fear and what not to fear, and how things should and shouldn’t consume my mind, my soul and my spirit. But most importantly, my experiences in 2008 have taught me about my resilience and my strength through adversity. If I ever have any doubts, knowing this fact and believing in this fact will help pull me through any situation handed to me by this crazy thing called “life.”


Oh, It’s Only 138 Pages?

I’m in the mood for blogging, but I’m currently going through 138 pages of this with a highlighter and a Sharpie.

What is it?  Why, it’s the third edition of Pew’s “Future of the Internet.”

That’s not too epic sounding, is it?

(If you’re looking for something somewhat less time-consuming, take a look at this just-released report featuring some of the social media industry’s top leaders’ predictions for social media in 2009.  That’s only 23 pages.)


Could New Media Have Prevented the Holocaust?

If new media existed almost 70 years ago, would we have been able to have prevent Hitler’s rise?  At his Nobel lecture last Sunday, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, this year’s Nobel literature prize winner, posed this thought:

“Who knows, if the Internet had existed at the time, perhaps Hitler’s criminal plot would not have succeeded — ridicule might have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day.”

Due to the lack of a global media presence, the atrocities went largely unnoticed by America and the rest of the world’s citizenry, at large.  It make sense – if there was a way to get messages out the the world’s population about what was going on back in 1939, perhaps it could have been stopped.

I can imagine a Tweet from a friend in Poland that takes the world by storm, perhaps by a mobile phone.  Perhaps it’d be retweeted over and over again, blogged about, and eventually picked up by the mainstream media.  After all, Twitter is quickly becoming the de facto “breaking news” alert system for a large number of Tweeters and news organizations.  A spark is a spark, and a tweet like that would be hard to ignore.

But is awareness of a war – and a genocide – truly enough to shame and ridicule a world leader into submission?  In an ideal world, we’d love to think so.  It’d be great if new media could save the world.  But then I think about what’s going on in Zimbabwe, or what’s going on in Darfur, and I wonder if it’s just pure idealism.

It’s not exactly like the new media world has turned a blind eye to Darfur – in fact, Geoff Livingston is currently working on a project for the Save Darfur Coalition, and all of can attest to joining at least two or three Darfur-themed Facebook groups by now.  My hope is that Geoff’s new push breaks through, but the last 3 or so years of Darfur campaigns haven’t stopped the genocide.

The same goes with Zimbabwe – groups like the Open Society Institute have pushed campaigns like “Eyes on Zimbabwe” (a project that I helped out with just last year) for some time now, but Robert Mugabe is so incredibly insane that it hasn’t changed a thing.  We all know what’s going on in Zimbabwe, and so media has worked in its original intent – to spread information and raise awareness – but we’ve yet to find the “next step,” on an international, online-organized level.

While there are significant digital divide issues in Africa, there are plenty of tweets, blog posts, and successful media portals – including the amazing Afrigator – that cover these issues.  Yet, it’s never added up to what Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio idealizes.

It’s amazingly romantic to think that new media could have stopped the Holocaust from happening.  I’m a romantic, myself, but we’ve yet to see the day where this could be possible.  I’ll keep dreaming, though.

I want to know your perspective on this.  Is it feasible to think that new media could prevent a new Holocaust?  Has the medium already failed that test, or has new media just yet to reach a critical point where this is conceivable?


How Should We Treat Communities After We’re “Done” With Them?

That makes two.  Pownce, the original competitor to Twitter, has just been obtained by blog platform company SixApart.  This, on top of I Want Sandy and its company Values of n being purchased by Twitter just last week.

On the surface, they have little in common other than the loose micro-blogging components that they share.  One’s a Twitter-like system purchased by a blog company, and the other is a contextual assistant with powerful tagging, obtained by Twitter itself.

There has, however, been somewhat of a backlash on how the closings of these technology communities have both been handled.  Users of I Want Sandy bemoaned the idea of finding a replacement that could come close to what it does (and actually started a chain on their community boards suggesting comparable alternatives).  And while there’s just a small, devoted group of people on Pownce, its members are wondering why the service would be shut down after being obtained – and in need of clarification on why it had been obtained in the first place.

Both were purchased because they have a useful core technology that can be semi-applicable.  Right now, as I Want Sandy and Pownce exist, they serve only a minor usefulness to the companies that purchased them.  But with some re-application, both of these technologies could be game-changing enhancements to both Twitter and SixApart.

Who knows, maybe Sandy’s technology might be a way for Twitter to begin to have a better, more contextual tagging system.  By having a system that can understand context, finding conversations by topic and being able to tweet with people that are talking about what’s on your mind would be extremely useful to the company.  After all, Vaues of n’s mission was “to help people collaborate and get organized.”

Or – another one – Pownce could be implemented as a way to create a more social blog that competes with Twitter – perhaps as a way to make comments more real-time.  I’d argue that the lack of real-time communication and the inability for users to conveniently aggregate and respond to blogs comments is one of the reasons why conversations are now moving to Twitter.  So, by re-purposing Pownce’s core, SixApart might be able to move conversation back to blogs in order to stay relevant as personal online communication evolves.

The point is that there’s an inherent value in purchasing these technologies and folding their developers and information architects into these pre-existing companies to enhance their products.  Right now, all of the old communities see are their technologies – and their communities – being shut down, with nothing to show for it.

It’s these people who should see their beloved ex-platforms turn into something great.  At the very least, explanations – and possibilities – should be shared with them.  But I’d argue that it should be these very people who are included in the process of transition.

If you were the purchasing company, wouldn’t you like to have a loyal base at your disposal – who would become dedicated members of your own service as well?  Wouldn’t you want to keep them as users to help perfect the implementation of their technology in Beta testing?

I suppose it’s something to keep in mind: how we handle online communities after we help grow them is just as important and as valuble as how we handle them as we build and maintain them.

UPDATE (9:11 AM): Some users from the I Want Sandy community have decided to re-create “Sandy” through open-source methods.  Members are lining up to contribute to the project, which indicates just how strongly the community felt about this service (they are, after all, re-building it) – and just how much of a lost opportunity there was in the way the closing of the service was handled.  Take a look here: http://sandysback.blogspot.com/2008/11/progress-being-made.html


Microsoft Researches “Cyberchondria”

Very interesting article from the New York Times today about the subject of “cyberchondria.”  That’s when you research medical symptoms on the Internet, and 20 minutes later you start to think that you’ve got a terminal disease.  It’s one of those “duh” studies, but the intention for the research is to create a better system for searching medical information, and so the basic premise of “cyberchondria” needed to be researched first.

Here’s the money quote:

On Monday, Microsoft researchers published the results of a study of health-related Web searches on popular search engines as well as a survey of the company’s employees.

The study suggests that self-diagnosis by search engine frequently leads Web searchers to conclude the worst about what ails them.

The researchers said they had undertaken the study as part of an effort to add features to Microsoft’s search service that could make it more of an adviser and less of a blind information retrieval tool.

The funny thing is that my own doctor advises her patients to look up additional medical information up online.  I’ll share this story: one time, she wrote down my ailment, passed me the piece of paper, and told me to “Google it.” I looked at her as if to say, “hey, aren’t you the doctor?,” and it really surprised me that medical professionals would be giving that kind of advice.  I assume it’s because of a need to cut down time with patients, but that’s a tad on the negligent side.  By the way, I’m in the process of finding a new doctor.

Here’s to hoping that the study yields some positives for medical “Googling.”  Cyberchondria is real (I’ve had it from time to time, and I’m a pretty logical person), and if more doctors are following my own doctor’s trend of telling patients to “Google it,” then we’ve got real problems.


Sandy Gave Me Her Notice

Today, my personal assistant went and quit on me.

It was a pretty good deal for me.  I’d send her e-mails and tweets with events and to-dos. She’d send daily agendas, would remind me of things via tweets, text messages and e-mail, and I never forgot a thing.  She made me more proactive and task-oriented.  And best of all, she was unpaid.

I knew it was too good to be true.

Today, on a community support board, Rael Dornfest of Values of n announced that his company had been aquired by Twitter.  As a consequence, IWantSandy (my assistant) and another contextual service called Stikkit will cease to exist as of December 8th.  It’s been mentioned that eventually some of the technology might be implemented into Twitter.  I actually don’t see how a task management program might be naturally related to Twitter, with Twitter being one of my biggest (and worthy) timesucks.

So, Sandy’s gone.  There’s nothing quite like her – she understood context, so you’d just type things out, including when and where she should remind you.  I’m trying a few other services, but…nothing similar.  Life’s just not fair…(I kid..I’ll find something…).

She gave her proper 2-weeks notice, but many in the IWantSandy community are outraged.  It seems as though we have a tendency to expect free services to last forever, which is impossible.

At the same time, I see their point.  As we begin to outsource our brains to “bots” that have names (and Evernote could be catching on), we become ever-increasingly dependent.  When someone pulls that plug on something that we believe to be “ours” – and in this case, it’s a “personal assistant” with our data, who “works” for us – it seems natural that we’d be a tad pissy.

For me, it’s a task management system that worked well for me, and I actually enjoyed using it.  Mainly, I’m sad to see Sandy go.