Review: The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser – how to burst these bubbles

I referred to filter bubbles a while ago, and thought I should get around to reading the book of that name by Eli Pariser. Written in 2011, and subtitled ‘What the internet is hiding from you’, it is an interesting review of web personalisation and its dangers, current and future. It takes as its starting point Google’s announcement in December 2009 that it would personalise every search result, so trapping web users in an ‘Adderall Society’, where like users of that drug they become more focused and less curious.

It’s an interesting read, and Mr Pariser – who among other things has been executive director of the online campaigning service and is now co-founder of viral-with-a-purpose social media firm Upworthy– has civic-minded concerns about people becoming ignorant of hard news, particularly from abroad, as the likes of Google and Facebook serve up only what someone is likely to click on.

However, while it’s good that The Filter Bubble includes a section headed ‘What individuals can do’, I think quite a lot remained unsaid. The section suggests you delete cookies regularly, and there’s a good comparison of Twitter and Facebook, the former with simple rules and lots of user control, the latter with complex, often-shifting ones which have been known to change a user’s semi-private data into public.

This is all good advice, but there are plenty of other ways of escaping filter bubbles, simply by seeking out services which don’t personalise, or do so in ways controlled by the user.

As previously discussed, DuckDuckGo provides standardised rather than personalised search. On news, one answer is to avoid aggregators and look at actual publications. The Guardian has different home pages for different countries, each changes all the time and it’s not unfair to say that some things get on it because they’ll get clicked on a lot – although it’s not (yet) personalised. However, if you want its view of what has actually mattered in the last day, it has an index of all the articles in the printed newspaper. The Economist has the same option as does the New York Times.

In both the latter cases, you will have to pay for access after a few articles online. And paying, if you want material edited for you rather than for advertisers’ benefit, is often the answer – which is one of the reasons I am publishing my Ends of Britain series on Beacon, last week on George Osborne’s Scottish speech and Britain’s spell of bad weather. The BBC’s online empire is edited for its readers, but if you’re British, you’re probably paying 55p a month for it through the licence fee. (Everyone else – you’re very welcome to what you can see. A lot of audio and video is blocked to visitors outside the UK.)

More specifically, for a reader’s guide to new books the monthly Literary Review is superb – and costs £28 a year online, £35 in print in the UK. For the best UK restaurants and hotels, the annual Good Food Guide and Good Hotel Guide (£17.99 and £20 respectively, although often discounted) are excellent, and both include money-off vouchers. Leaving aside vouchers and the fact that all three are good to read, they will provide a return on investment if they help you avoid buying a few duff books or a single poor meal or hotel stay. As they are produced for the buyer, they would go out of business if they were not trustworthy – which may not be true of free sources of book, restaurant and hotel reviews.

Bursting a filter bubble need not be difficult – try piling on a few pounds.