In response to Eli Pariser and online ‘filter bubbles’.

In The Observer on Sunday 12 June, Eli Pariser sets out a vision of the web which is heavily influenced by the information we submit each time we visit a site, carry out a Google search and otherwise give away a little bit more of ourselves and our interests. In a passage from the article, which itself an extract from his new book, Pariser discusses three aspects of the ???filter bubble??? which surrounds each of us each time we go online. My comments below seek to discuss the bubble in relation to attendance at festivals and events, such that they also provide us with a distorted reality for the period in which we engage with them. The closing paragraphs seek to extract some value out of this comparison, for event producers their audiences and collaborators, and other stakeholders they seek to involve in their events.

Link: Pariser’s Observer article.

???An invisible revolution has taken place is the way we use the net, but the increasing personalisation of information by search engines such as Google threatens to limit our access to information and enclose us in a self-reinforcing world view, writes Eli Pariser in an extract from The Filter Bubble.???

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1. ??????you’re the only person in your bubble. In an age when shared information is the bedrock of shared experience, the filter bubble is a centrifugal force, pulling us apart.???

Live events can help overcome this, for they bring us together and provide opportunities for discussion, dispute and agreement??? but at least all attendees are in the same space and contribute to the debate. This could be a cultural performance, a corporate conference, community festival or collaborative happening. Each person???s contribution will necessarily vary, whether delineated along the lines of performer/audience, or something more akin to the Belbin test. Whatever the form of event, whatever your contribution, the in-person event is one which individuals can experience unmediated by the cookies on their browser and the constraints of their social networking site of choice.

2. ??????the filter bubble is invisible. ???Because you haven’t chosen the criteria by which sites filter information in and out, it’s easy to imagine that the information that comes through a filter bubble is unbiased, objective, true. But it’s not. In fact, from within the bubble, it’s nearly impossible to see how biased it is.???

The bubble shapes the environment in which we navigate the web and on which we make our choices: forms of entertainment, consumption choices and political opinions. It would disingenuous of me to propose that live events overcome this when so many are openly predicated on achieving those same goals: the Virgin-sponsored music festival; the slick Apple product launch; political rallies demanding revolution. Then there are the events which belie their deeper meanings and wider implications: witness the London Olympics and the work behind #media2012 to explore that festival in all its guises.

My scratch (naive?) argument here is that these events are generally less surreptitious in their attempts to shape the audience/consumer experiences. The savvy consumer buys into a festival or event knowing that the producer is trying to elicit a particular set of responses, many of which are perfectly agreeable to the consumer ??? else why engage in that transaction? Pariser???s argument above is based on the premise that we aren???t aware of these influences online and there???s little we can do to engage in that discussion. But with the Virgin festival we can react against excessive branding; Apple???s commercial message may or may not appeal and we can vote with our wallets. In a democratic society public funding is arguably relatively transparent in its support of particular events-based projects, with funding application forms and mission statements transmitting the values and goals of government agencies. Either way, the event attendee can target the producer and their funding partners with their questions and concerns, engaging with and interrogating the event bubble.

I tempered the paragraph above with a suggestion that the views are ultimately naive, whether through poor analysis of the information available, lack of appreciation for the deeper motivations of those guiding the events industry or in the degree to which consumers are indeed savvy in their choices. An alternative set of arguments, which reflected the altered reality of events and thus the ways we let our guards down and become open to covert messages, are equally appealing. So how should these views be reconciled: through a recognition that each event has the potential to build an exploitative bubble around its contributors, but that not all do? Perhaps, but then maybe each event is in fact part of a much grander project that few of its stakeholders are aware of.

3. ??????you don’t choose to enter the bubble.???

Pariser???s third argument is that in many instances the filters we view life through are actively chosen by us, ???you can guess how the editors’ leaning shapes your perception. You don’t make the same kind of choice with personalised filters. They come to you??????. The majority of events and festivals need some of this buy-in from audiences and contributors, hence an engagement with the objectives of the event and a choice about whether or not to engage: to buy the ticket, to sign up to the workshop, to march with the protestors. Very few events demand our attention as free agents: an employer may require ones presence at a training event, but a gig in a local club can pass us by unnoticed. The exceptions include events which visit us, landing in our neighbourhood and imposing themselves on our route to work and perhaps breeching the peace of a good night???s sleep. They also include revolutions and large scale happenings which capture the media???s attention (both traditional and ???new???): choosing to ignore half a year of protest and violence in north Africa and the Middle East, or a Royal Wedding, isn???t easy to do regardless of one???s engagement with society at large. The extent that an event is a bubble, shaping the information that reaches us, is one which we ??? generally ??? choose to enter.

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But why put forward these arguments here: after all, Pariser isn???t arguing about what it???s like to go to a concert or an agricultural show. It???s several months since Rohan of the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab put forward arguments on why the Edinburgh festivals are like the web, a theme he later explored at South by Southwest I believe. In a similar vein a comparative piece on the issues identified with modern web culture, placed alongside the experience of attending festivals and events, can help identify areas where they can enhance each other and the value users derive from engaging with either. The value to event producers of this approach is that potential concerns or opportunities can be identified and managed ??? the extent to which visitors feel exploited, or the authenticity of event is questioned, perhaps.

Pariser is encouraging us to question the honesty of the web, both in terms of the companies we engage with online and the degree to which the search results we view are ???true??? or limited thanks to our web history. Can some of this mistrust be overcome by in-person meetings? He draws on Putnam???s Bowling Alone for an analogy of where ???every
body expected??? the internet to take us: to the town hall meetings that Putnam felt were important in generating the ???bridging capital??? which binds a disparate society together. Instead we are shepherding in as much ???bonding capital??? as will squeeze into an online session: we associate with folks like us and to a larger extent than before, not so much destroying the disparate and complicated public space as neglecting it to wither away. We fail to engage and therefore we and our society are diminished as a result.

Pariser???s closing paragraph:
If “code is law”, as Creative Commons founder Larry Lessig declared, it’s important to understand what the new lawmakers are trying to do. We need to understand what the programmers at Google and Facebook believe in. We need to understand the economic and social forces that are driving personalisation, some of which are inevitable and some of which are not. And we need to understand what all this means for our politics, our culture and our future.

The internet and live events bring people together as a result of similar forces, arguably fostering the forms of capital discussed here and suffering the same limitations in terms of engagement with the public sphere. To what extent does our modern culture, which champions social media and social gatherings, reinforce our predilection for bonding capital at the expense of the more nourishing bridging capital which can bring powerful benefits to the individual and society? What are the implications of this for event producers, policy makers, marketers, the third sector and socially connected individuals like you and me in the network city?