In a world where computer algorithms play an increasingly important role in determining what information we consume, there is another force pulling us in the other direction. I’m talking about the “content curation” that people do to filter information so it’s more useful for themselves and others.
We share a lot of stuff on Facebook, of course; not just web links, but images, messages, events, and all kinds of other stuff. One of the reasons Twitter took off, in spite of Facebook, is that it was particularly good at helping us share information. Twitter actually thinks of itself as a “real-time information network” – not a social network like Facebook. The engine that drives that information network is a dedicated core of “information networkers“ – people who use the service to curate content for other people.
I believe Google+ will eventually eclipse Twitter as the web’s main content curation engine because it’s a better service for sharing interests with other people. I personally spend most of my social media time on Google+, and in the process, I’ve learned a few things about what I believe are some of the core aspects of social media networks. This post focuses on an important aspect of them: curation.
Curating the Curators
There are lots of problems with this “rich get richer” phenomenon, one of which popped up for me a while back, almost by accident. I had decided earlier that I wanted to identify a group of people who were sharing interesting content, but who hadn’t yet built big followings on Google+. After a bunch of work to identify this group, I shared the results as a “circle share” on Google+. The results were quite positive. Several hundred people added these individuals to their own circles, which is great visibility for this group – a nice opportunity to get their content in front of more people.
“In just a few minutes, my stream changed. Suddenly there were posts about history books, science, psychology, food and all of them had some added value. Not just resharing of some article, but adding some comment or thought that made it more relevant.”
This is what led to my “discovery.” You see, when it comes to networking information, curating content is only half of the problem. The other half is curating people.
[Tweet “…curating content is only half of the problem. The other half is curating people.”]
When we take the time to build interesting, diverse circles on Google+ or lists on Twitter, we improve the way we filter information. It’s up to us. We can pursue strategies that concentrate the stream of content into just the same old stuff, or we can go out of our way to increase the diversity – and the quality – of what comes to us. It’s all in the people we follow.
The results you see when you search for “Egypt” on Google are quite different from what I see. This is even more true now than it was when Pariser first started talking about this problem, because of the way Google and Bing have recently started integrating social signals into search results. Another version of this problem occurs within the information you get in your stream on Facebook, because of Facebook’s “EdgeRank” algorithm.
Pariser’s point is that algorithms are curating the world for us and that we don’t get to decide what stays in and what gets edited out. Here’s Pariser speaking about the “filter bubble” at TED:
We Create Our Own Bubbles
What’s more, my experiment with curating that circle on Google+ highlighted for me that it’s not just the algorithms that are the problem.
When we use “social proof” (“everyone else is following that person, so I should too”) as the only criteria for deciding whether or not to follow someone on a social network, we create our own organic filter bubble. We concentrate connections in the network into the hands of a relatively small number of “network celebrities,” and though they may have very interesting things to say, it tends to result in a more homogenous flow of content in the network, as the ideas of interesting, but lesser-known people are drowned out in a sea of celebrity re-tweets and re-shares.
And that’s not the only way that our choices of who to follow shape the information we receive. When we only follow people who look and think the way we do, we limit our exposure to different types of information. In this way, of course, our online social networks are no different than the physical world. The failure to surround ourselves with a diverse group of friends and acquaintances narrows our worldview, it filters out our experience of the world.
Now it may be that you’re fine with that. Filters do help reduce complexity and noise, after all, and life can be a lot simpler when we surround ourselves with people just like us. And yet, in doing that, we cut off something really valuable, something called “reality.” Reality doesn’t always conform to how we want to see the world. But surrounding ourselves with diverse perspectives does help give us a more complete picture of what’s really happening in the world – and that’s no less true on Facebook, Twitter, and now, Google+.
Today, social networks powerfully affect the information we receive. Pariser is absolutely right that with the great algorithmic power that Facebook, Twitter and Google now have with these services, comes the burden of great responsibility.
And yet, it’s the content curation that people do on these services that deeply affects each of our respective “Internet Filter Bubbles.” So some of that responsibility still sits with us. Without us, these social networks are useless. On social media networks, the information filter is us. We create our information filter bubbles every time we choose whether or not to connect with another individual on these services.
[Tweet “On social media networks, the information filter is us.”]
In the world of the information networker, curating content is only half the game. The other half is curating the curators. And in that power to choose our connections, rests our ultimate power to reshape our information filter bubbles and radically improve our perception of reality.
Girls on coach
Cat modified from original