Activists caught in the Filter Bubble

How personalization helps activists find each other while losing society

Also published at Alternet.

Eli Pariser’s new book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You is a must-read for pretty much anyone who uses the Internet. Eli breaks down troubling trends emerging in the World Wide Web that threaten not only individual privacy but also the very idea of civic space.

Of key concern to Eli is “web personalization”: code that maps the algorithms of your individual web use and helps you more easily find the things that the code “thinks” will pique your interest. There’s a daunting amount of information out there, and sometimes it can feel overwhelming to even begin sorting through it. Personalization can help. For instance, I can find music that fits my tastes by using Pandora, or movies I like through Netflix. The services provided by companies like Pandora, Netflix, Amazon, et al are designed to study us&#151to get to know us rather intimately&#151to the point where Netflix can now predict the average customer’s rating of a given movie within half a star. Eli paints a picture of your computer monitor as “a kind of one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests while algorithmic observers watch what you click.”

Whatever the benefits, the intent of these services isn’t just to benevolently help us find the things we’re looking for. They’re also designed to help companies find unwitting customers. When you open your web browser to shop for a product&#151or really for any other reason&#151you yourself are a product whose personal information is literally being sold. Companies that you know, like Google and Facebook, and companies you’ve probably never heard of (e.g. Acxiom) are using increasingly sophisticated programs to map your personality.

And it’s not just creepiness and individual privacy that’s at issue here. Personalization is also adding to a civic crisis. It’s one thing for code to help us find music, movies and other consumer products we like. But what about when code also feeds us our preferred news and political opinions, shielding us from alternative viewpoints? Personalization now means that you and your Republican uncle will see dramatically different results when you run the same exact Google news search. You’re both likely to see results that come from news sources that you prefer &#151 sources that tend to reinforce your existing opinions. Maybe your search will pull articles from NPR and Huffington Post, while his will spotlight stories from FOX News. Both of you will have your biases and worldviews fed back to you &#151 typically without even being aware that your news feed has been personalized.

Web personalization is invisibly creating individual-tailored information universes. Each of us is increasingly surrounded by information that affirms&#151rather than challenges&#151our existing opinions, biases, worldviews, and identities.  

This filter bubble impacts everyone. And it poses big challenges for grassroots activists and organizers in particular.

Values reflected back: the illusion of doing something

If you’re an activist, then probably a lot of your Facebook friends are activists too. Your friend Susan has been posting all week about the public workers in Wisconsin. Jacob posted an insightful read about white privilege that’s at the top of your newsfeed &#151 50 of your friends “like” it. Sam is a climate activist, and her Facebook presence reflects it. And you just posted an article about an upcoming protest to end the U.S. occupation in Afghanistan.

When you log in on Facebook as an activist, it might feel like you’re part of a mass movement. Social justice issues are front and center &#151 as if that were the main thing people used Facebook for. That’s how web personalization works on Facebook. When you click on a lot of posts about gay marriage, you will start seeing more similar posts. When you check out certain people’s profiles, they’ll show up more often in your newsfeed. If these folks think a lot like you do, you’ll see a lot of stuff that reinforces your worldview.

It’s fun and validating to see a lot of stuff you agree with. But consider the implications. People who are opposed to gay marriage are seeing a lot of articles that reinforce their beliefs too. And, perhaps more important, folks who aren’t that interested in the issue probably won’t see anything about it at all. Maybe you fancy yourself an agitator with your Facebook posts, but the folks who might feel agitated&#151and the more persuadable folks in the middle&#151typically aren’t seeing those posts at all. Furthermore, even if you think you’re right about all your beliefs, how are you going to be equipped to persuade others if you’re not exposed to their views?

You can spend your whole day expressing your political identity on Facebook. You can also use it to mobilize the usual suspects to take some online action &#151 or maybe even to get some of them out to an “offline” political event. But to mistake this kind of thing for grassroots organizing is a big problem.

Grassroots organizing is a process that happens within&#151and within deep relationship to&#151already constituted social blocs. It’s a process of articulating demands in language that means something to the community and making those demands actionable. It is moving the community into action as a community &#151 not just fishing for a handful of radicals who come out as individuals. But most activist spaces today are spaces for self-selectors, where folks do enter as individuals. And to really enter these spaces, you often have to assimilate to an activist subculture, and check some aspects of your identity at the door.

I don’t know of any mass movement in the history of the world that was composed of all self-selecting individuals (at least no movement that lasted longer than a flash). Take the Civil Rights Movement. If Bob Moses, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks had been oriented toward the center of a small circle of self-selectors, they would not have been the leaders of a movement. (Picture them inspiring each other with status updates like, “No one should have to give up their bus seat because of the color of their skin. Please post as your status if you agree.”) It only became a movement when these and other good leaders helped to move whole communities&#151most notably black churches and schools&#151into action as communities. Membership in these communities came to imply movement participation. This is how movements become movements.

Self-selection on steroids

Web personalization shouldn’t be blamed for starting this pattern where people gravitate toward the things they “Like”™. Eli is quick to point out how Americans had been clustering into likeminded groups for a few decades before the web was even a big deal. We have literally been migrating into values-homogenous social spaces since the late 1960s. Discussing the ideas of Ron Inglehart, Bill Bishop, Robert Putnam, and others, Eli paints a picture of an increasingly fractured society.

For the past four decades or so we’ve been rearranging our lives to surround ourselves with people who think a lot like we do &#151 phasing out folks who don’t share our opinions and tastes.  We’ve chosen our neighborhoods, religious congregations, civic and political organizations, the cultural spaces we frequent, and our friendship circles so that we can experience our worldview reflected back to us and minimize dissonance. With or without web personalization, it makes sense that we would continue to follow the same pattern in our online communities.

Ron Inglehart’s explanation for the trend is based on Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”: once our basic survival and material needs are provided for, we then focus more attention on social networks and individual expression. This explains why dramatic outbursts of self-expressiveness hit every industrialized society in the world simultaneously in the late 1960s. According to Bill Bishop (in The Big Sort), a generation that “grew up in relative abundance” started to display “a politics of self-expression.” And apparently, self-expressive people prefer to express themselves in like-minded company.

So what’s the big deal? I like my friends and I’m glad they share my values. It’s affirming. It makes me feel good. I can relax in like-minded company. What’s the problem?

Eli discusses several problems with this trend. I want to discuss, for an activist audience, a political problem &#151 political in the sense of collective power. My friends and I may be satisfying our identity needs when we talk politics at the bar&#151or when we share political posts on each other’s Facebook walls&#151but what are we accomplishing? What can we accomplish? What do we, as a small, self-selecting, self-segregating group of folks have the capacity to accomplish &#151 if we’re not connecting with others?

See, if you love to play the online game World of Warcraft and&#151for reasons I can only guess at&#151you want to spend all your time doing that, then living in a bubble doesn’t pose much of a problem for you. By surrounding yourself with other folks who are equally obsessed with this admittedly pretty cool videogame, you can be an all-W.O.W.-all-the-time kind of person. Best to you.

If, on the other hand, you set out to stop global warming, you will absolutely fail if you only surround yourself with people just like you. You need a heck of a lot more people to get on board. The magnitude of your task demands that you break out of your activist ghetto and go beyond the boundaries of self-selection. If you want to build the kind of collective power needed to take on the fossil fuel industries&#151with all their money, power, and entrenched webs of influence&#151then you have to somehow infuse your goal into the identities of many, many sectors of society.

But are you, climate activist, up for this task? Or will you instead orient yourself toward the center of a small, insular climate activist subculture? Will you frame your message strategically to connect with people who live beyond the boundaries of your group? Or will you content yourself to signal only to your friends? The world may be going to hell in a hand basket, but at least you’re there taking a righteous stand, surrounded by other righteous eco-warriors, right?

As a grassroots organizer, one of things that troubles me most about the filter bubble is its potential to take the tendency of insularity among would-be social change agents and to inject it with steroids. I’ve seen some of the most committed social justice activists strangely resembling folks who are obsessed with World of Warcraft. They structure their lives around something that they’re really into. And no one else is paying attention.

The very concept of a group of activists speaks to this fragmentation. It’s as if activism has morphed into a specific identity that centers on a hobby&#151like being a skater or a “theater person”&#151rather than a civic responsibility that necessarily traverses groups and interests. In a way, the very label “activist”&#151its individualizing, identifying affects&#151excuses everyone else from civic responsibility. I may or may not have an opinion about a given issue, but I can’t be expected to do anything about it because “I’m not an activist,” or “I’m not really into politics.”

In a society that is self-selecting into ever more specific micro-aggregations, it makes sense that “activism” itself could become one such little niche. But when it comes to challenging entrenched power, we need more than little niches. We need huge swaths of society bought in.

Bursting Bubbles

Reaching a broader audience is an indispensible task of social change agents. If we are to leverage the kind of collective power it takes to make the kind of change worth talking about, we need to construct broad alignments of heterogeneous social forces. This task becomes more challenging as the public information landscape becomes increasingly ghettoized. Here’s Eli:

…the Internet has unleashed the coordinated energy of a whole new generation of activists&#151it’s easier than ever to find people who share your political passions. But while it’s easier than ever to bring a group of people together, as personalization advances it’ll become harder for any given group to reach a broad audience. In some ways, personalization poses a threat to public life itself.

If we’re not intentional, the task of reaching a broader audience won’t just be harder; it’ll be hopeless. If activists are themselves ensnared in self-selecting, self-affirming&#151one might even say narcissistic&#151filter bubbles, they will lack even the inclination to attempt bridging beyond the boundaries of comfortable little clubs.

Political expression that doesn’t engage beyond self-selectors is essentially apolitical. There is no politics without friction. Civics is not easy or clean or pure or contained. It’s messy. Civic engagement requires us to break out of bubbles, to dive into the mess, and to lean into the friction.

The hopeful nugget here is that social change work has always started with a belief that reality is dynamic, not static. Things change all the time, even seemingly fixed structures. And we can step up and be self-conscious agents who influence the direction of change. The filter bubble, and all the constraints that come along with it, is another kind of structure we have to engage. Recognizing the structure is an important first step. To that end, Eli’s book is a great contribution. Then we’ve got to do some stuff that may make us feel uncomfortable.

Bob Moses wouldn’t have been a leader in the Civil Rights Movement if he had stayed in the north and only surrounded himself with other Harvard-educated young black academics and professionals. For the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to help catalyze a movement, he and others would have to enter some of the most dangerous segregated areas in the South and talk with some of the poorest, least educated, and most disenfranchised people in the entire country &#151 probably at times an altogether uncomfortable experience.

While Bob Moses sets a pretty high measure to compare ourselves with, perhaps we can at least take a little inspiration and conceptual wisdom from his approach. If he and other Civil Rights leaders could muster the courage to step so far out of their comfort zones, perhaps we can at least start consciously taking a few small steps in that direction.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker is a grassroots organizer, strategist and trainer. He serves as Director of Beyond the Choir.

Book Review: The Big Sort (part 2)

This is Part Two (of two).  Read Part One here.

While I’m a big fan of The Big Sort for all the reasons discussed in Part One of this review (among other reasons), I was disappointed by the author’s symmetrical depiction of the ways the left and right demonstrate his Big Sort theory, and by the book’s uncritical reinforcement of the story of the moderate center.  Sure, I see convincing reasons why author Bill Bishop wrote the book exactly the way he did – and not exactly the way I may have wanted him to. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that for The Big Sort to be seen as an objective commentary on political self-segregation and partisanship in the United States, the author surely saw the sense in giving equal attention and critique to how his theory plays out on the left and the right. He is, after all, a journalist.

Where this becomes a problem is when he gives the false impression that the right and the left, or Republicans and Democrats (and, no, I don’t think those labels are interchangeable) exhibit his theory in mirrored fashion.  He neglects to give adequate attention to significant qualitative differences.  These differences are, IMHO, indispensably instructive for how we approach the democratic crisis that Bishop is pointing us to.

Let’s start with the idea of compromise.  And let’s start with Democrats and Republicans inside the halls of Congress.  The lack of willingness to compromise in Congress, along with the resulting political gridlock, is one of the main problems that Bishop identifies with the Big Sort.  Now, he doesn’t come out and say explicitly that Republicans and Democrats are exactly equal in their unwillingness to compromise in exactly the same ways.  But he gives the impression of symmetry; that both sides are equally stubborn.  Democratic and Republican politicians are both pushing the “entire country into a choice between the far left and the far right.”

That narrative is crap.  Democratic politicians tend to compromise a great deal (and compromise and compromise and compromise until the cows come home) and Democratic voters actually favor politicians who compromise.  Republican politicians, on the other hand, tend to steamroll when they hold majorities and obstruct (and impeach) when they don’t, and Republican voters overwhelmingly favor politicians who “stick to positions” over ones who compromise.   To get specific, Pew found in early 2007 that 58% of Democratic voters “most admire politicians who make compromises” over 34% who “most admire politicians who stick to positions” – compared with just 36% of Republican voters admiring politicians who compromise, and 57% preferring those who don’t.  (See the Pew poll here (PDF), and I recommend Chris Bowers’ analysis here.)

That’s an asymmetrical equation.

And just look at the present Congress.  In one piece of legislation after another, Democrats have started out with moderate proposals aimed at preemptively appeasing Republicans.  The Democrats modeled much of their health care reform legislation on Republican former Governor Mitt Romney’s legislation for Massachusetts.  Progressives started by fighting for a compromise position – a public health insurance option, rather than a single-payer system that many of us strongly prefer.  But progressives ultimately got thrown under the bus, and Democrats barely passed health care legislation at all.  The path of compromise has been a one-way street that leads only further to the right (and to more concessions to big business).

I had to laugh out loud when I saw this in Bishop’s afterword, which he wrote last January:

Maybe the struggle to provide everyone with medical care will become one of those cross-cutting issues, urgent enough to put Republicans and Democrats in mixed company again.

Picture a bully and a nerd in a school playground.  The bully punches and kicks and trips and pinches and bites the nerd whenever possible.  The bully has no qualms about fighting dirty.  When the bully lacks the quickness to get his physical hands on the nerd, he then spews insults ceaselessly, doing everything he can to make the nerd look uncool.  The nerd believes in compromise and negotiation, and tries awfully hard to please the bully.  But guess what?  He just keeps getting his ass kicked. Enter a neutral observer who admonishes both bully and nerd to “stop fighting,” as if both share equal culpability.

To be fair, The Big Sort was written before the present Congress.  And Bishop certainly isn’t the only person playing the role of the “neutral observer” in the story of the bully and the nerd.  And he’s not as flagrant about it as many journalists.  I got the impression that he knows darn well about the lopsidedness of the problems he discusses.  In a footnote he points to Jacob S. Hacker’s and Paul Pierson’s contention in Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy that “the primary cause of polarization in the United States was a move to the right by Republican officeholders.”  And then there’s this:

The second explanation [for the origin of polarization] – one favored by Democrats – holds that conservative activists built an interlocking structure of propaganda and money that moved the Republican Party, and the nation, to the right.  The aim of the New Right after Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 was to exacerbate divisions in the country and then exploit them.

But he labels this the “conspiracy” explanation, and mostly brushes it off by arguing that Bill Bradley and other Democrats exaggerated the importance of the Powell Memorandum.  How does the influence or lack thereof of a single memo change the fact that conservative activists have indeed “built an interlocking structure of propaganda and money that moved the Republican Party, and the nation, to the right?”

He does concede that there’s “some truth to the conspiracy stories.”  And I have no argument with the point he’s leading up to:

…conservatives better understood the changes taking place in the country, and that is why, for a time, Republicans were more successful politically.  Republicans didn’t create a movement.  They recognized the cultural shifts taking place across the country – the Big Sort – and then channeled what was happening into politics, to their advantage.

But Bishop doesn’t go on to discuss the tangibles that Republicans gained – beyond political power – by successfully harnessing cultural shifts.  The Republican Party, to those steering it (and IMHO) is little more than a vehicle for a pro-big-business, unfettered capitalism, regressive taxation agenda – a vehicle that’s been successfully branded as something else entirely in order for the party to have a base.  Stoking cultural issues (particularly fears) is a matter of making a sideshow into the main event.  The Big Sort treats today’s culture and politics as “post-materialist” – that’s really the point of the book, and there’s immense value in looking through that lens – but the problem is that we live in a political system and media environment that prominently features cultural battles on the main stage while sneaking in an elephant through the back door.

And that’s exactly why I recommend reading this book.  I could whine all day about how unfair the story of the moderate center is – how it brands progressive change advocates as extreme, radical, far left, etc. to effectively inoculate the public, the media, and decision-makers against us and our positions.  And I think I would be right.  But right does not equal might.  The conservative activists who dramatically changed our country these past four decades know that well.  To succeed, progressives need an astute understanding of the cultural changes unfolding around us – and not just immediately around us.  We need an active analysis of the patterns of self-selection and self-segregation that have taken hold.  We can’t just wait for the self-selectors to be attracted to our progressive brand (or micro-brand: “Fuck off. We’re the People’s Front of Judea!”).

We live in a dauntingly enormous country of three hundred million people.  It’s no easy task to try to understand it – let alone to be ready to see and seize the openings.  Bill Bishop does a great job in The Big Sort of illuminating some of our blind spots.  I hope you’ll read it!

Book Review: The Big Sort (part 1)

“How could Bush have possibly won?! I don’t know anyone who voted for him!”

“How could Obama have possibly won?!  I don’t know anyone who voted for him!”

Depending on where you live and who you associate with, you’re likely to have heard some version of one or the other of the above two quotes (in 2004 or 2008, respectively).

That’s because over the past few decades we’ve migrated and rearranged our lives to surround ourselves with people who think pretty much just like us – and we’ve effectively phased out the folks who don’t share our opinions and tastes.  We’ve chosen our neighborhoods, religious congregations (or lack thereof), civic and political organizations, the cultural spaces we frequent, and our friendship circles so that we can experience our worldview reflected back to us and minimize dissonance.

In The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, author Bill Bishop (with Robert G. Cushing) eloquently presents a thorough study of political self-segregation in the United States.  Since around, say, 1968, geographic and cultural spaces in the United States have become measurably more politically homogeneous.  Bishop provides data to support this claim, broken down by zip codes, neighborhoods, religious congregations, civic organizations, and more.  He offers helpful explanations from several angles for why this has happened – including some fascinating insights from social psychology.  And he makes strong arguments that this “Big Sort” is having profound impacts – mostly negative – on our culture and politics.

The book focuses heavily on Democrats vs. Republicans.  This is understandable as the only data available that snapshots political opinion across the entire country at once is voting records from Presidential elections.  It’s the one time when we all have the same political choice in front of us – and you can see how different districts, zip codes, and demographics cast their votes (and having only two major political parties – lucky us – surely makes the analysis simpler).  As such, I can appreciate why the author draws primarily on this data.  I do take issue though with the way he discusses the two parties as if they genuinely represent the left and the right.  I take more issue with how he treats left and right as if they are symmetrical in their self-segregating behavior, and equally culpable for the crisis in our democracy.  I discuss this further in Part 2 of this book review.

But critiques aside for the moment, here’s why I love this book – and why I think it’s essential reading for anyone working for progressive change in the United States.  Bishop provides a framework that inadvertently illuminates a major constraint on the emergence of stronger, broader-based progressive movements today: namely the tendency of progressives to talk only to ourselves.  I’ll get to that shortly.

First, to explain our national “migration of self-selection,” Bishop spotlights the work of Ronald Inglehart, who “proposed a theory for why all industrial countries appeared to be undergoing similar changes in their cultures and politics” – changes that seemed to explode dramatically all over the world at once in 1968.  Inglehart’s explanation is based on Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” which essentially states that once people have air, they then concern themselves with finding water; and after their thirst is quenched, they can think about food; and then clothes and shelter.  And once basic survival and material needs are so abundantly available that they can be taken for granted, we humans then concern ourselves with social networks, and then ultimately with individual freedom and expression.

Inglehart applied Maslow’s theory to what was happening in every industrialized society around the world simultaneously in the late 1960s.  Bishop discusses how a generation that “grew up in relative abundance” started to display “a politics of self-expression.”

The new society was more about personal taste and worldview than public policy.  It was as much or more concerned with self-expression and belief as with social class and economics.

Self-expressive people apparently like to express themselves in like-minded company.  And there you have it… The Big Sort.  Bishop provides a much fuller picture, and then goes on to discuss how insularity, self-righteousness, and groupthink inevitably rear their ugly heads in homogeneous social circles.  That’s where I jump off to return to the question of what progressive change organizations have to learn from The Big Sort’s framework…

If a progressive change organization’s goals are instrumental (i.e. the aim is to measurably change policies, structures, etc.), then it’s necessary for effective group members to be outwardly oriented – regularly talking to people outside of our social circles in order to build broad-based grassroots power, to gain the capacity to affect the big changes we imagine.  But if our psychological motivation for involvement is self-expressive (i.e. our aim is to express our values and who we are as people, and to feel a sense of belonging in a value-based community), then it doesn’t really matter if we talk to anyone but ourselves.  In fact, our identity with the group is reinforced when we differentiate ourselves from people outside of the group.  There can actually be a disincentive to reach outside of the group or social circle – and a social incentive to put up barriers.  This is especially true if a group defines itself in direct opposition to the dominant culture.  If your group’s narrative rejects the dominant culture, it’s pretty easy to take the next step and reject “society” wholesale – and then your place in the group is affirmed when you encounter (or project) hostility from “society.”  Taken to the extreme, some political groups even become suspicious of success itself.  Because if society embraces you, then you must have sold out!

So, at least part of our psychological motivation for political involvement can be fulfilled completely without us ever winning anything.  Thus, some of the most committed, fire-in-the-belly fighters for social justice and equality today are wearing their politics on their sleeve in a way that signals only to each other – at the cost of turning off a lot of potential allies.  We’re building a community together.  We are oriented to impress each other.  Our tactics, our speech, our fashion, all our expression is aimed at the center of our small, ineffectual, insular groups – instead of aiming to infect the broader society.  We are always looking to differentiate ourselves from the dominant culture, instead of looking for common ground.  We become attached to an identity of the righteous few, the keepers of a little flame.  We pride ourselves that we won’t let it be extinguished, but our monopoly on that little flame, our attachment to our own marginalization, our activist brand – inoculates the proverbial prairie against catching fire.

I’m generalizing.  Different political organizations land at different points across the instrumental vs. expressive spectrum.  And very few groups actually enjoy swimming in their own marginalization.  But probably all of us could stand to reflect on the prayer of Reverend Johnson (Blazing Saddles, anyone?): “O Lord, do we have the strength to carry off this mighty task … Or are we just jerking off?”

To be clear, the biggest reasons I recommend The Big Sort (particularly to progressive change advocates) are likely pretty different from the reasons why Bill Bishop wrote the book.  He seems mostly interested in getting everyone to better understand each other and to talk to each other more – worthy goals.  I’m extrapolating from his framework, applying it to my “neck of the woods” (waaaaaaay over here in “Far-Left-ville” *I discuss problems with this framing in Part 2 of this review).  In my 16-and-counting years working for progressive social change, I’ve found myself frustrated many times with the insular, “preaching to the choir” tendencies of many efforts I’ve been part of.  The Big Sort has helped me to see those tendencies in a broader societal context.  Like-minded clustering and self-segregation is not a uniquely progressive problem.  Just the opposite; it’s a nationwide, across-the-spectrum phenomenon.  You can see it in golfers or Cure fans or church-goers.  Like golfers and Cure fans and church-goers, members of social change organizations gain a sense of identity and belonging by surrounding ourselves with like-minded people.  But unlike golfers or Cure fans or church-goers, the raison d’etre of social change organizations is to affect real change that everyday people can feel in their everyday lives.  To do that, we can’t afford to go it alone.  We won’t see the big changes we imagine if we fail to activate more than the self-selecting usual suspects.  We’ve got to orient ourselves to connect outside the group to a broader base.

There’s some irony here.  For a crew that so often fashions itself as different from the dominant culture, in one important way we’re just doing what everyone else is doing: we’re surrounding ourselves with the wonderful people that we feel most comfortable with, and we’re closing off to others.  That seems perfectly understandable.  It even seems somewhat inevitable – but I hope not.  I hope we’re capable of devising better strategies for how we engage the Big Sort.

Read Part Two here.