Filter Bubbles!

I’m sure you have read breathless reports, news stories and tweets about how filter bubbles are harmful. The usual go-to scapegoat are the social networks. The confirmation bias laden bubbles are formed on those networks after all.

We collectively tend to assign normative labels to complex topics. Things like compounding get a positive label. Things like filter bubbles get a negative label. I reject that line of thinking. That’s lazy, reductive and counterproductive. Compounding can be negative too! Just start drinking and smoking every day and let’s touch base in a couple years. We can perhaps speed things up if you throw in more sugar and carbs in your diet while not exercising at all. Similarly, filter bubbles can be positive. Shocker! They can be used as forcing functions that leverage exposure bias and spaced repetition for rapidly learning something.

We often remove the role of personal agency when discussing such nuanced topics. The benefits of compounding don’t magically accrue to us. The adverse effects of filter bubbles don’t magically get imposed on us. We take a series of actions, consciously or subconsciously, that result in benefits or harm over time.

Filter bubbles are knowledge networks. They are echo chambers, for sure. But, you get to decide who gets to speak in those chambers. An optimal knowledge network for any given topics will have practitioners, academics, and journalists. Within each of those category of people, there will be advocates, moderates, and opponents. We intuitively understand that a part of the reason behind the length of book is hammering home a set of core ideas. Filter bubbles are like books where you get to pick a bunch of authors and the content of the book changes daily.

Filter bubbles are most widely discussed in the context of political echo chambers. The usual narrative says that liberals and conservatives are living in their own worlds and everything is yelling at each other on social media. Now, would you rather have a world where your entire worldview was predicated on who was physically around you or a world where you can peek into the world of your political opponents with a few clicks for free? Newspapers in the 19th century were shamelessly and explicitly aligned with political parties and causes. Why aren’t we grateful for social media that empowers us to build our own filter bubble where we can learn how advocates, opponents and moderates on every issue we care about think and feel.

The utility of filter bubbles transcends politics. Back in 2014-2015, when I learned about this thing called venture capital, I followed 100 venture capitalists on twitter to create a filter bubble so that I can understand and learn from what they are reading, saying, sharing and writing. Back in 2016, I got curious about conversational products. I built a knowledge network around that on twitter. Over summer of last year, I decided to throw myself into crypto twitter. I also do this for investments twitter, economics twitter, memes twitter etc.

One hack that I have found very helpful is to keep the ratio of people you typically agree with to people you typically disagree with in a knowledge network to 1:2. You wan’t the filter bubble to constantly throw you into a cognitive dissonance mode. You wan’t to be constantly challenged. Either dissenting ideas will help you change your mind or at least become skeptical of what you believe in. I can’t help you if you don’t want those things. You can go back to blaming Mark Zuckerberg and feels terrible everyday.

If you choose to follow crazies and stupid people on the other side of any debate, that’s on you. If you choose to only follow those people who always agree with you, that’s on you. If you choose to follow people who always keep telling you how the world is crumbling, that’s on you.

But, but….ALGORITHMS! All these companies are out to get us. They show us things we always agree with! Right?!? Perhaps go and like a dozen things you disagree with on Facebook or follow people you know you disagree with on twitter. It is quite liberating to think that we are in charge. It does not even matter whether that’s fully true. It most likely isn’t. But, the alternative line of thinking gets us nowhere.