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Curating your own serendipity filters

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23 May 2011

Is social media in danger of creating little bubbles around us? A cozy merry-go-round, the same opinions, the same conversations, by the same people, day in and day out?

There is research (PDF) that shows that Twitter users Retweet in a partial political fashion. Older research shows that blogging and the consumption of blogs are highly partisan as well.

Push vs Pull
Two new trends in the consumption of media are clearly discernible. The early ascendancy of Google very much put pull, or actively looking for content, at the forefront of how we consume media. This was at the expense of the old push model: where others – usually pros – decided what content we should consume.

But now push is back with a vengeance. It is called the Facebook Newsfeed, or in the case of Twitter, the Timeline. Flipboard wraps this push in nice formatting for the iPad, while a slew of new video apps like Showyou are competing to make your social connections your TV channel controller.

Even when pulling, we now encounter the effects of push. Google now includes results from our social connections in our search queries, and that has just been extended worldwide.

But all these changes, whether pull or push have the same focal point. The erosion of the exclusive power of professional taste makers and curators in deciding what media we consume.

Lost serendipity
With users increasingly exposed to content via peers through social media, instead of through the choices of schedulers or editors, are we in danger of not seeing information we should? Jeff Jarvis, as per usual puts it well:

I constantly hear the fear that serendipity is among the many things we’re supposedly set to lose as news moves out of newsrooms and off print to online. Serendipity, says The New York Times, is lost in the digital age. Serendipity, it is said, is something we get from that story we happen upon as we flip pages, the story we never would have searched for but find only or best in print. Serendipity, it is also said, is the province and value of editors, who pick the fluky and fortuitous for us. Without serendipity, as I hear it, we’ll be less-well informed (all work, no play, makes Jack a dull boy; all relevance, not serendipity, makes Jill a predictable girl).

Today in the New York Times Eli Pariser founder of Moveon.org presented another argument that this new media ecosystem leads to a echo chamber with disastrous results for society.:

All of this is fairly harmless when information about consumer products is filtered into and out of your personal universe. But when personalization affects not just what you buy but how you think, different issues arise. Democracy depends on the citizen’s ability to engage with multiple viewpoints; the Internet limits such engagement when it offers up only information that reflects your already established point of view. While it’s sometimes convenient to see only what you want to see, it’s critical at other times that you see things that you don’t.

She He underscores her point with the following evidence:

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, once told colleagues that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

I can’t argue with that statement put in those terms. But is it true?

What interests you

My personal experience is that it rings true, but that the argument can have exactly the opposite effect. I was one of the early people – that previously paid no mind – to be switched on to events in Tunisia. I followed the fall on Ben Ali. And then I was early onto Egypt. How come? It was Twitter’s fault. I saw tweets about unrest in Tunisa in my timeline. These tweets piqued my interest. Would I have followed events so closely without Twitter? That is highly unlikely.

The odd thing is I can’t even remember who in my timeline were responsible for those tweets.

This very article is the result of seeing a Tweet by @academicdave (Dave Parry) of Eli Pariser’s article. I discovered @academicdave when I saw Tweets about @techsoc’s brilliant blog posts about Tunisia. I followed her. I found out she and Dave are Twitter debating partners AND she recommended I follow him.

The key is that a dying squirrel in my front yard is unlikely to be of more interest to me than people dying in Africa in a revolution by young people, against a tyrant.

Serendipity is relevant surprises
Jeff Jarvis points out that serendipity is not to be confused with randomness. It is in fact unexpected relevance. And Jarvis reckons our friends, our social connections are best placed to deliver this relevance:

Can we still get serendipity online? Of course, we can and do — mostly on Twitter and Facebook. Serendipity comes from friends who find that story and — like an editor — pass it on. If we share their judgment, we may like what they share and call that serendipity. But there’s plenty that passes me by on Twitter that I don’t like; it’s serendipitous by the usual definitions but it doesn’t work for me because it has no value; it’s not relevant.

Can an algorithm serve us serendipity? Maybe, if it has enough signals of what we and people we trust like, what interests us, what we need, our context. It can calculate and predict and try to serve our relevance and serendipity. I think serendipity comes not from one-size-fits-all editing but from better targeting across a larger pool of possibilities. If Google can intuit intent, I think it can also serve surprise and serendipity.

The generalist media provider can not deliver niche relevance, your friends, your peers are often more likely to. The real trouble then is us. The real problem is our thresholds of what we consider to be relevant.

The problem is not necessarily that new technologies insulate us from people that know better what we should pay attention to. The problem is that we get out of these technologies what we put into them. The responsibility for consuming and spreading media has fallen on us. Jake Levine points out that:

In the distributed social web, where every participant is a content producer, the audience must curate the curators!

And this is a constant process. On at least a weekly basis I adjust and tweak my Twitter graph.

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  • Posted by Sam
    September 2, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Eli is a dude.

  • September 2, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Actually I realised that the other day. Fixing the post thanks :)

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