Friday, June 4, 2010

The New Digital Divide

Call it the New Digital Divide. In the early days of the Web, social innovators predicted it would spawn a more open and democratic society. Today, though, that hope is being strongly challenged.

According to Eli Pariser, a cofounder and former Executive Director of, data aggregators like Google have started using increasingly sophisticated filters to decide what information we consume online. Trouble is, these new levels of data-personalization, along with the growth of social networks that we use to self-aggregate, are threatening to hamper civic engagement. The filtering, Pariser told those attending this week's Personal Democracy Forum in Manhattan, is starting to keep us from being exposed to a surge of new information and ideas -- and chiefly, viewpoints that may differ from our own.

For example, Pariser says, Google now uses 57 different personalization filters to customize what we see on the Web, even if we aren't logged in. That makes it harder for us to see news and information that Google's algorithms suggest might bore us or upset us. And that's not all, says Pariser. Often, these "filter bubbles" keep information from us without our specific permission -- and worse, without our knowledge. [Google isn't the only culprit. Facebook also customizes content, using information on the links people click to tailor the news that appears in their personal feeds. Pariser, a progressive, says he has tried hard to add conservative friends to his own Facebook feed but their links and feeds keep getting blocked by Facebook's personalization algorithms.]

"What you see on your screen may be different from what the person sitting next to you sees during a similar Google search," Pariser told the gathering of more than 600 social change advocates, social entrepreneurs and open-government activists. "...We really need to get away from that silly idea that (computer) code doesn't care about anything."

Data-filtering isn't new, of course. But these new filter bubbles differ from what we've seen before, and in three key ways, Pariser says. First, the degree of personalization is higher. You're no longer simply being grouped with a bunch of people who read The Nation. Now you're alone in your bubble. Second, filter bubbles are invisible. You don't realize they exist; you can't see them. And third? You don't choose them. They choose you. "As the face of curation of what we see and consume online changes from a person to a machiine, we need to start questioning the values of these filtering devices and get the power back to make these decisions for ourselves," Pariser says. "The filter bubble may be good for consumers but it's bad for democracy."

Other assertions made by presenters:

* There is racial segregation on the Web, even in trending topics on Twitter. According to data visualization experts Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, the thousands of hashtags being used to collate and segment different conversations by topic also may be keeping many people out of the short-messaging site's most popular and/or important conversations. Example: Two of the top-trending topics over the recent Memorial Day weekend -- #cookout and #oilspill -- were starkly segmented along racial lines. Viegas said the #cookout conversation was attended mostly by blacks and #oilspill, mostly by whites during the same period. "Hashtags are the bumper stickers of the 21st Century," said Wattenberg. Added Viegas: "On many topics, it's a heterogeneous crowd, but there's a whole other chunk of topics where race divides people. We need to be aware that even online, we can be immersing ourselves in conversations that are segregated in ways that might be worrisome."

* We are not using the social media tools we have to solve problems so much as we are using them to socialize with like-minded people about these problems. It's time to get more active offline, said Clay Johnson, the director of Sunlight Labs and cofounder of the online political strategy firm, Blue State Digital. Social entrepreneurs and activists need to focus less on using social media to build email lists and focus more on getting people active offline solving social problems, he said. He cited the online social network,, as a good example of a social network that is highly civically engaged, using government data on health, education and economic trends to create a "Moms Score" to help catalyze offline protests and social change.

* We must work harder to break out of these self-imposed (or machine-imposed) comfort zones if we're to affect social change. "We are too focused on climbing the hierarchy ladder in our workplaces and social networks online, and not focused enough on dismantling these hierarchies, which is where the true power lies," said Deanna Zandt, a social media consultant and author of Share This! a new book about social networking. "We're living like fish right now," she said. "We don't know we're wet. We're taking our perception that the Net is a wonderful meritocracy but that's not true. We need to interrupt this pattern of thinking immediately." Zandt urged conferees to shatter their comfort zones to start making the Net a more hospitable place for civic engagement. "We have to work harder at civic engagement online," she said. Zandt, who is white, shared her own experience of finding herself in an unexpected discussion on Twitter about race in America after she spoke out against an action last summer by Philadelphia's Valley Club to ban black children from swimming in its pool. "This was completely outrageous, I got really angry about it and signed petitions and all of that, but what was more interesting was what happened in the days following that," Zandt said. "People started sharing on Twitter about the first time they'd been discriminated against as children and this blew me away. I wouldn't have found myself in a group of people of color, sharing stories about discrimination without Twitter" and without "stepping out."

* We must stop enabling the status quo. John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a 20-year-old nonprofit digital rights advocacy group, told the gathering that he stands by his earlier statement, made many years ago, that "the Internet is the most powerful event since the capture of fire." Barlow said there is massive power in the hands of individuals, thanks to the Web, but this is power that destabilizes the status quo and can cut both ways, for better and worse. Most people still don't know how to use this Web power to organize and affect social change. But they are learning, he said. "We have to stop expecting the government to shower us with things it can no longer deliver," he said, "and start running this country and our institutions (including companies) the same way the Internet is run, from the edges."

* We must stop assuming that civic engagement will occur online on its own. James Fishkin, the director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, said the best way to boost public deliberation online is to create it. Fishkin says that the current way we "self-select" our social networks online has led to only the most extreme views being heard by one group or another. He suggested a five-step "Deliberative Polling" methodology to start creating issues circles, which first gets all stakeholders together from all sides of an argument to agree to a set of detailed survey questions that will help frame a debate around issues where civic engagement is most needed. Second, select 500 people who represent specific groups across viewpoints to participate. Third, send them the survey. Fourth, assemble them in small groups and facilitate discussion and deliberation, either online or in person. Fifth and last, survey the participants again to see if their opinions have changed as a result of that engagement.

* The Net can be a force for civic engagement, especially in societies around the world where there has been none before. Ethan Zuckerman -- a social media expert, blogger, founder of, a Web hosting enterprise, and cofounder of Global Voices, an internationally crowdsourced news site -- said the Net "really changes things in the long-term by creating a new public space, one that in most closed societies around the world is not available any other way."

What do you think? Does the surge of online social networks and corporate use of Net filters to segment consumers of their products make it harder for people to engage with one another -- in or out of the workplace? Let us hear from you.

-- By Marcia Stepanek


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Blogger JK @ HandsOn Network said...


Thanks for your great coverage of PDF. There are so many great thoughts and ideas here. I've forwarded the link to this post to many colleagues.


June 4, 2010 at 2:22 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, Jessica! This year's PDF conference was fascinating, indeed! Thanks for reading!

June 4, 2010 at 11:12 PM  
OpenID sarahaallison said...

This a brilliant piece and something I find fascinating. I'm currently researching news online for my Masters dissertation and this idea of personalisation and its undemocratic side effects is a very useful one. Sarah

June 8, 2010 at 7:08 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, Sarah, for reading!

June 8, 2010 at 8:48 PM  
Blogger Simon Blackley said...

What I like about Twitter is that it lets me choose my own news sources. It isn't trying to second guess me (yet). Of course I mostly choose to follow people with whom I feel an affinity. (Well, I'm human, right?) But there is nothing to prevent me from seeing, or following, people with entirely different views.

October 9, 2010 at 2:54 PM  
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September 23, 2011 at 7:18 AM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Yes, absolutely. Go ahead and bookmark it. Thanks for reading and all best regards.

September 23, 2011 at 9:19 AM  
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