Brain Pickings

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12 MAY, 2011

The Filter Bubble: Algorithm vs. Curator & the Value of Serendipity

By:

How the web gives us what we want to see, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Most of us are aware that our web experience is somewhat customized by our browsing history, social graph and other factors. But this sort of information-tailoring takes place on a much more sophisticated, deeper and far-reaching level than we dare suspect. (Did you know that Google takes into account 57 individual data points before serving you the results you searched for?) That’s exactly what Eli Pariser, founder of public policy advocacy group MoveOn.org, explores in his fascinating and, depending on where you fall on the privacy spectrum, potentially unsettling new book, The Filter Bubble — a compelling deep-dive into the invisible algorithmic editing on the web, a world where we’re being shown more of what algorithms think we want to see and less of what we should see.

I met Eli in March at TED, where he introduced the concepts from the book in one of this year’s best TED talks. Today, I sit down with him to chat about what exactly “the filter bubble” is, how much we should worry about Google, and what our responsibility is as content consumers and curators — exclusive Q&A follows his excellent TED talk:

The primary purpose of an editor [is] to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.” ~ Eli Pariser

q0

What, exactly, is “the filter bubble”?

EP: Your filter bubble is the personal universe of information that you live in online — unique and constructed just for you by the array of personalized filters that now power the web. Facebook contributes things to read and friends’ status updates, Google personally tailors your search queries, and Yahoo News and Google News tailor your news. It’s a comfortable place, the filter bubble — by definition, it’s populated by the things that most compel you to click. But it’s also a real problem: the set of things we’re likely to click on (sex, gossip, things that are highly personally relevant) isn’t the same as the set of things we need to know.

q1

How did you first get the idea of investigating this?

EP: I came across a Google blog post declaring that search was personalized for everyone, and it blew my mind. I had no idea that Google was tailoring its search results on an individual basis at all — the last I’d heard, it was showing everyone the same “authoritative” results. I got out my computer and tried it with a friend, and the results were almost entirely different. And then I discovered that Google was far from the only company that was doing this. In fact, nearly every major website is, in one way or another. (Wikipedia is a notable exception.)

q2

In an age of information overload, algorithms certainly finding the most relevant information about what we’re already interested in more efficiently. But it’s human curators who point us to the kinds of things we didn’t know we were interested in until, well, until we are. How does the human element fit into the filter bubble and what do you see as the future of striking this balance between algorithmic efficiency and curatorial serendipity?

EP: The great thing about algorithms is that, once you’ve got them rolling, they’re very cheap. Facebook doesn’t have to pay many people to edit the News Feed. But the News Feed also lacks any real curatorial values — what you’re willing to Like is a poor proxy for what you’d actually like to see or especially what you need to see. Human curators are way better at that, for now — knowing that even though we don’t click on Afghanistan much we need to hear about it because, well, there’s a war on. The sweet spot, at least for the near future, is probably a mix of both.

One interesting place this comes up is at Netflix — the basic math behind the Netflix code tends to be conservative. Netflix uses an algorithm called Root Mean Squared Error (RMSE, to geeks), which basically calculates the “distance” between different movies. The problem with RMSE is that while it’s very good at predicting what movies you’ll like — generally it’s under one star off — it’s conservative. It would rather be right and show you a movie that you’ll rate a four, than show you a movie that has a 50% chance of being a five and a 50% chance of being a one. Human curators are often more likely to take these kinds of risks.

q3

How much does Google really know about us, in practical terms, and — more importantly — how much should we care?

EP: That depends on how much you use Google — about me, it knows an awful lot. Just think: it’s got all of my email, so it not only has everything I’ve written to friends, it has a good sense of who I’m connected to. It knows everything I’ve searched for in the last few years, and probably how long I lingered between searching for something and clicking the link. There are 57 signals that Google tracks about each user, one engineer told me, even if you’re not logged in.

Most of the time, this doesn’t have much practical consequence. But one of the problems with this kind of massive consolidation is that what Google knows, any government that is friends with Google can know, too. And companies like Yahoo have turned over massive amounts of data to the US government without so much as a subpoena.

Companies like Yahoo have turned over massive amounts of data to the US government without so much as a subpoena.” ~ Eli Pariser

I’d also argue there’s a basic problem with a system in which Google makes billions off of the data we give it without giving us much control over how it’s used or even what it is.

q4

Do you think that we, as editors and curators, have a certain civic responsibility to expose audiences to viewpoints and information outside their comfort zones in an effort to counteract this algorithmically-driven confirmation bias, or are people better left unburdened by conflicting data points?

EP: In some ways, I think that’s the primary purpose of an editor — to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.

q4

Is it possible to reconcile personalization and privacy? What are some things we could do in our digital lives to strike an optimal balance?

EP: Well, personalization is sort of privacy turned inside out: it’s not the problem of controlling what the world knows about you, it’s the problem of what you get to see of the world. We ought to have more control over that — one of the most pernicious things about the filter bubble is that mostly it’s happening invisibly — and we should demand it of the companies we use. (They tend to argue that consumers don’t care — we should let them know we do.)

On an individual level, I think it comes down to varying your information pathways. There was a great This American Life episode which included an interview with the guy who looks at new mousetrap designs at the biggest mousetrap supply company. As it turns out, there’s not much need for a better mousetrap, because the standard trap does incredibly well, killing mice 90% of the time.

The reason is simple: Mice always run the same route, often several times a day. Put a trap along that route, and it’s very likely that the mouse will find it and become ensnared.

So, the moral here is: don’t be a mouse. Vary your online routine, rather than returning to the same sites every day. It’s not just that experiencing different perspectives and ideas and views is better for you — serendipity can be a shortcut to joy.

Ed. note: The Filter Bubble is out today and one of the timeliest, most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time — required reading as we embrace our role as informed and empowered civic agents in the world of web citizenship.

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12 MAY, 2011

Famous Creators on the Fear of Failure

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Embracing what is, or how to fail like the world’s most successful creatives.

While failure may be an integral prerequisite for true innovation, the fact remains that most of us harbor a deathly fear of it — the same psychological mechanisms that drive our severe aversion to being wrong, only amplified. That fear is the theme of this year’s student work exhibition at Stockholm’s Berghs School of Communication and, to launch it, they asked some of today’s most beloved creators — artists, designers, writers — to share their experiences and thoughts on the subject. While intended as advice for design students, these simple yet important insights are relevant to just about anyone with a beating heart and a head full of ideas — a much-needed reminder of what we all rationally know but have such a hard time internalizing emotionally.

When you put love and enthusiasm into your work, even if people don’t see it, they realize that it is there, that you did this with all your body and soul.” ~ Paulo Coelho

It is very important to embrace failure and to do a lot of stuff — as much stuff as possible — with as little fear as possible. It’s much, much better to wind up with a lot of crap having tried it than to overthink in the beginning and not do it.” ~ Stefan Sagmeister

What it comes down to is accepting the fact that many ideas and many solutions that we provide to our clients may always, or sometimes, fail. The trick, I think, is to A) accept it and B) have the courage to accept it and move forward with what you believe in.” ~ Rei Inamoto

But my favorite has to be Milton Glaser:

A characteristic of artistic education is for people to tell you that you’re a genius. [...] So everybody gets this idea, if you go to art school, that you’re really a genius. Sadly, it isn’t true. Genius occurs very rarely. So the real embarrassing issue about failure is your own acknowledgement that you’re not a genius, that you’re not as good as you thought you were. [...] There’s only one solution: You must embrace failure. You must admit what is. You must find out what you’re capable of doing, and what you’re not capable of doing. That is the only way to deal with the issue of success and failure because otherwise you simply would never subject yourself to the possibility that you’re not as good as you want to be, hope to be, or as others think you are.” ~ Milton Glaser

Explore all the videos on the exhibition site and feel free to share your own recipe for dealing with failure in the comments below.

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12 MAY, 2011

New Dawn, New Day: Introducing the New Brain Pickings

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Today is a big day here, for today is the day that Brain Pickings sheds a skin that never quite fit and is reborn into what it always aimed to be, visually and editorially.

I started Brain Pickings in 2005 as a text-only newsletter going out to eight people. At the time, I was in college full-time and working three jobs to pay my way. But I wanted to take it online, so I took a web design night class, sifted through several hundred hours of tutorials, and taught myself just enough design and code to be able to wrangle WordPress, still somewhat of an early-adopter enigma at the time. Over the next six years, Brain Pickings found its audience — folks like you and me with a cross-disciplinary curiosity for what the world has to offer, creatively and intellectually — but remained visually stunted. The irony of the disconnect between a heavy editorial focus on design and a layout that looked like a sixth-grader designed it, with their feet, never ceased haunting me. But I had made the decision very early on not to sell advertising on the site and instead fund it out-of-pocket, relying almost entirely on the generosity of readers, so I never had a budget for a “real” designer.

(If you ever wondered, all those banners on the site were pro-bono for causes, nonprofits and social enterprises I believe it and wanted to support by giving them share of voice, in lieu of being able to give them money — friends and fine folks like Holstee, Creative Commons, Do The Green Thing, Longreads, HappyRambles, TOMS Shoes and Dead SULs. I’m still brainstorming ways to keep supporting these guys, but it can no longer be at the expense of a clean and fluid reader experience.)

Today, I’m nervously excited and incredibly proud to unveil something years in the waiting: An honest, clean design that better reflects the heart and soul of Brain Pickings. Forgive the string of superlatives, but they come from sincerity: I’m unspeakably grateful to the infinitely talented, patient and generous Josh Boston for the beautiful work — please bake him cupcakes and give him some love on Twitter.

Lest we forget, this what Josh had to start with:

(Yes. Exactly.)

And here’s what he turned it into:

As a child of the mid-noughties, Brain Pickings adopted many of the decade’s conventions-turned-cliches. So today, “we” are also dropping the Royal We, which is to writing style what grungy textures and dot-rays are to design style — a worn and unnecessary adornment. Back in the day, I felt like the first-person plural made the tone more inclusive and Brain Pickings sound like a bigger operation than it was. But the truth is that, for the past six years, it’s been almost entirely me, writing into the wee small hours of the morning, with very occasional help from these good people, to whom I’m also very grateful. From now on, however, all articles will be in the much more human first-person singular, authentic to each writer’s byline. So say I.

Lastly, I owe two big THANK YOU’s for the generous in-kind support by MediaTemple, who swooped in to save the day when our… argh, my… this is going to be a harder transition than I thought, heh… old web host booted Brain Pickings with virtually no warning for “having outgrown [their] capacity,” and the lovely MailChimp, who have kindly taken on the Brain Pickings weekly newsletter.

And so it goes — a new dawn, a new day. I hope you enjoy it and here’s to many more years of cross-disciplinary interestingness.

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