Many of us in the United States learned the term “filter bubbles” by way of their effects on our civic lives and national politics. When we search for news or current events information on media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, predictive algorithms are applied that assume that we will want to see the same kinds of topics and viewpoints we have viewed in the past. This self-reinforcing process can leave us circling solipsistically in little bubbles of our own existing predispositions and prejudices. We don’t learn new information or encounter different points of view. The democratic ideal of an informed citizenry is poorly served, to say the least.
Another way to say all this is that when our algorithms are programmed to treat us as boring, static, and unevolving, it can become a self fulfilling prophecy — we become boring, static, single-minded and don’t evolve.
As a result of collective outrage over filter bubbles in political discourse, there are now all kinds of interesting experiments and calls for different kinds of algorithms that will expose readers to a wider array of information and viewpoints on social media.
No equivalent collective anxiety exists around the use of predictive algorithms in the consumer realm.
But maybe we should get anxious, or at least interested in the fact that a substantial amount of disposable income globally is spent on content and experiences that also convey information, ideas, and viewpoints. Travel, restaurants and food, education and training, movies, books, all manner of other forms of entertainment and leisure opportunities engage consumers at an open-ended juncture of our existing desires and those we don’t know about and don’t know if we like yet. As consumers, we can easily end up in ‘filter bubbles’ of purchasing options that look just like what we have bought in the past.
This is arguably not good for us, not simply as citizens, but more broadly. New experiences and ideas can be routes to mental agility and creativity, which are critical skills in new digital economies. And human civilization advances when people widen their apertures to learn new ideas. Perhaps, then, the idea of exposure diversity should be considered not only by social media and news sites, but by a wider range of industries that sell ideas and experiences, whether these are cultural activities and products, education, or any manner of experience, such as fitness or travel or entertainment, and that use recommender sites to engage customers. Could they and should they, like social media, try to meet consumers not only where we are, but where we could be — as creatures who are capable of learning and discovery? Can information exposure diversity be a kind of corporate social responsibility in some cases? What are the trade-offs and benefits for both business and consumer?
Needless to say, no one has answered these questions yet. But it seems worth discussing.