'The You Loop': Eli Pariser on the Dangers of the Personalized Internet


Eli Pariser's new book The Filter Bubble is a valuable exposition of what living and learning through Google and Facebook will mean for our lives as citizens. It's the kind of work of translation that may not satisfy all academics, but that I think will be seen as an important milestone in the popular understanding of the tradeoffs that we're making accessing the world through the invisible algorithmic conduits of the Internet giants.

If you want one takeaway from Pariser's book, it's this: there is no longer one Internet, there are as many Internets are there are Internet users. In the rush to personalize your online experience so that they can show you more "relevant," i.e. valuable advertisements, Internet companies have begun to tailor the online world to you. That has all kinds of fascinating repercussions from the diversity of the political views you encounter to the future business model for news organizations.

I had a great time reading and talking with Eli about his book for Bloggingheads.tv. You can watch our encounter above. We have similar intuitions, I think, about the dangers of the algorithmic world, particularly the idea of what he calls the "The You Loop," which seems like the general proposition of what I've called algorithmic perversity. Here's how Eli puts it in his book:

Most personalized filters are based on a three-stpe model. First, you figure out who people are and what they like. Then, you provide them with content and services that best fit them. Finally, you tun to get the fit just right. Your identity shapes your media. There's just one flaw in this logic: Media also shape identity. And as a result, these services may end up creating a good fit between you and your media by changing ... you. If a self-fulfilling prophecy is a false definition of the world that through one's actions becomes true, we're now on the verge of self-fulfilling identities, in which the Internet's distorted picture of us becomes who we really are.

One thing to note about Bloggingheads, which I didn't realize until I started doing them: we're not actually in a video chat conversation. Rather, we're on the regular old phone and then recording ourselves separately in Quicktime. That is to say, there is nothing to look at on one's screen. If you keep that in mind, I think how people talk on Bloggingheads makes a lot more sense.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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