Why I’m Calling BS on the Filter Bubble

The Filter Bubble is a fancy new term for “The Echo Chamber”, and although the idea is not new, we’ll hear a lot more about it in the next few years.

It’s always good to approach new technologies with caution and skepticism, but I am not particularly fussed about “The Filter Bubble”, certainly not anymore than I was ten years ago. Why?

  • New media actually has the complete opposite effect of a filter bubble. Instead of being forced to read all the views from a small handful of newspapers and TV stations, you have unlimited choice if you want it.
  • Personal recommendation systems, based on your browsing habits, don’t have to recommend things similar to what you’ve seen in the past; they can equally introduce randomness and are well placed to bubbling up opposing views.
  • So the choice is better than before, and so are the technologies to specifically break you out of the echo chamber. Then why do people end up in a filter bubble? Because they choose to. Most people are too busy with work and life to go out of their way to explore different news and views.
  • But you’re different. You do want to bust the bubble and you’ll specifically subscribe to challenging RSS feeds and follow Twitter users you disagree with. This is an awesome explanation of what probably happens if you attempt it. TL;DR: empirical evidence people queue up intellectual movies to watch later, but when push comes to shove, they will watch popcorn movies instead. We can assume the same happens when we sign up for different stuff. On the whole, the disruption hurts our head and we end up ignoring it, so the “filter bubble” is just a mirror of our own preferences.

There’s a good discussion along these lines in this week’s On the Media podcast (from around 33:00).

Thanks For Your Comments, Friends

I’ve been wondering why I haven’t received blog comments for a while now. Assumed there must be some spam issue, but only today did I investigate it – triggered by a Dugg article on Akizmet’s false positives. (Akizmet is the WordPress web-service-based spam filter.) Akizmet has done a great job at separating definites from possibles, but it hardly let any real comments all the way. So I ended up having to moderate 250-odd comments over the past month, with about 35 false positives.

I probably haven’t heard about these problems because (a) they were in moderation, not marked as spam; (b) who remembers to go back to comments they left? (I don’t have any of the commenter ID plugins installed; maybe I should?); (c) my mail is equally full of spam lately.

The most interesting post in this regard was my advocacy for tableless forms, which surprisingly to me, was overwhelmingly supported by commenters.

I don’t like this because I generally like to reply to comments. I’ll go hit a few now…

Documentation As Conversation

I’m busy preparing a list of desirables for Web 2.0 APIs. One of them is good documentation, and I came up with this term – “Documentation As Conversation” – to articulate much of what is needed in modern software docs – documentation which belongs to the community of users/end-developers as it does to the people who created the product. The counter-pattern is “Documentation As 1995esque blob of HTML that you apparently haven’t updated since 2004”.

Examples of “Documentation As Conversation”:

  • The official PHP docs allow for comments on every single page. Each page represents a function (strlen() etc), meaning you get a great conversation about the intricacies of every single function, and there *are* plenty of intricacies.
  • The offiicial Scriptaculous wiki is a great description of the ins and outs of the API. Likewise Rails Wiki.
  • Javalobby had an effort to effectively wikify the official Java documentation – it still exists, but only for third-party libraries. See, Sun didn’t let it go ahead with the official API and did nothing with the idea themselves. Come on Sun, it’s not too late to help your users grok the doc!
  • Through his aptly named Loud Thinking blog as well as the official Rails blog, Rails creator DHH (+others in the latter case) offers an ongoing insight into the evolution of Rails that is at once colourful and extremely useful to the community. Unlike a number of clueless “official” blogs, comments are wide open.
  • Jon Udell uploads a video explaining how his lawnmower is operated. Manufacturers should be building a gallery of videos, images, and docs submitted by users to themselves or other sites.
  • The oldest online form of Documentation As Conversation – mailing lists, usenet, forums. Developers listen and take art in the conversation.
  • Those who practice “Documentation As Conversation” not only write themselves, but they shepherd the community and keep their ear to the ground. That is, they curate wikis; they respond to blog articles by commenting or blogging back; and they make themselves available for inteviews and appearances.

Documentation As Conversation is the way software should be documented in the world of Web 2.0.

(“Documentation As Conversation” is a play on “Markets As Conversation”, AKA the Cluetrain Manifesto.)

Podcasting is Easier than Blogging (in Theory)

One of several reasons why podcasting won’t be as big as blogging, according to Paul Scrivens :

Blogging requires a browser (if you are using a webmin interface) and an Internet connection. That’s it. Podcasting takes it a step further by requiring a microphone. I know many of you have mics on your computers, but I know a lot of people who don’t. Podcasting adds one more step to the publsihing process and if you mess up during the podcast it isn’t as easy to correct with a press of the backspace button as it is in blogging.

There are a couple of assumptions here.

Podcasting is Blogging and More But many people just publish podcasts without any shownotes. So if you have a libsyn account for instance, you can just upload the file and have it automatically pushed to an RSS feed. All you need to publish a podcast is the ability to get a file onto a server – FTP it, mail it, fax it, whatever.

Personal experience leads me to agree with the point about messing up. It’s for that reason that Adam Curry, Dave Slusher and others have led the way by demonstrating the notion of keeping things simple and not being obsessed with little glitches. Tools are still desperately required and the big breakthrough will be speech recognition, which I’m hoping will catch the end of the web 2.0 funding wave.

Podcasting requires a Microphone

Yes, but most people carry a microphone in their pocket all day long. More so than people with permanent access to a PC — 300 million+ Chinese mobile users can’t be wrong! Using a dialing gateway, you can easily create an MP3 from your phone. There’s a lot of opportunity for better services here, but the basic technology is already there. Note that none of this requires a smartphone – in theory, you just dial in, leave your message, and it’s updated to your podcast. There’s no editing, but again, that comes back to the idea of learning how to podcast without needing edits.

For those using a computer, they do need a microphone, but that’s hardly a showstopper for someone interested enough to want to podcast. To be fair, there’s actually a much bigger problem for many people: finding a quiet time and place to record a podcast.

Podcasting has arrived

It’s great to see how quickly podcasting has caught on. Two big VC deals and the American president becoming the latest podcaster (even if the term is not explicitly used; via Micropersuasion). Don’t tell me about fads – this won’t kill radio, but rest assured that podcasting has arrived.