With 36 percent of Americans under 30 getting their news through social-networking sites, personalization also affects the news we consume. Ever wonder why you don’t see updates from some Facebook friends in your News Feed? It’s due to an algorithm, partly based on the amount of time you spend interacting with that person.
The consequences of this social engineering, Pariser argues, is that we interact more with people who think like we do. Rather than fulfilling the early Internet dreams of diversity and freedom of choice, we are living in an echo chamber. As a result, there’s less room for “the chance encounters that bring insight and learning.” Where once we had human news editors who would temper the Britney coverage with a foreign war or two, now algorithms select our news for us based on what we click on and what we share.
The idea that the Web is an echo chamber is almost as old as the Web itself. But there still isn’t much empirical evidence to suggest that the Internet is narrowing our collective horizons. A new Pew report, “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives,” found that there is no relationship “between the use of social networking services and the diversity of people’s overall social networks.” Nor were Internet users less likely to consider both sides of an issue.
While not exactly a techno-pessimist, Pariser falls into the techno-pessimist’s trap of the Imagined Analogue Past. It is a rose-colored world that always forms the backdrop to books about the effects of the Internet. A world without digital distractions, with enlightening serendipitous encounters, where civic-minded news producers made sure we saw reports about famine in distant lands. In the Imagined Analogue Past we all had meaningful offline friendships, devoid of any superficiality.
But of course we never really lived like that. If our worlds are echo chambers now, what were they before, when every day we read the same newspaper, with its inherent biases in politics and scope? If the Internet is an echo chamber, what about the churches or progressive book clubs we attend? If you do live in an Internet echo chamber then that’s probably of your own making; in the pre-digital world you would have lived in one too. And anyone who has never experienced serendipity on the Internet has never been on YouTube.