We have all seen it. The lensing-effect that the internet has on any given topic. Part of this is driven by our own natural tendency to seek out the things that interest us; LOLcats or Supermodels or TV actors or bad tattoos. We don’t go to the internet to broaden our minds, we go to the internet to search for something specific, and in doing so, we FIND that something specific and move on.
But stacking on top of this are the tools of the internet itself. Tools that are supposed to show up the things that we want. Cookies get installed in your web-browser that only show ads related to the last commerce site you visited (I’ve been seeing only Eddie Bauer ads for the past three days now), news portals that look at your recent search history (looking at you HuffPo) and make suggestions based on the last few news items you’ve read (try it, go to a news site and look up an article on some superstar. 80% of the suggested articles will lead you to similar articles/information). So it’s very easy to think that the things you are deliberately searching for are the top layer of the internet, the important things that *everybody* is interested in.
Stack another layer, the comments section/s or any given article or organization’s web-pages, on top of that and you can very quickly find yourself inside of a virtual echo-chamber, thoughts and ideas similar to yours being bounced back at you and reinforcing whatever you came in the metaphorical door with.
The internet-savvy, those who not only have been at this a while, but those who retain the presence of mind to observe this phenomenon as it is happening, are possibly less-affected (or trolls, I mean, they gotta come from somewhere, right). But I find, more and more, that there is a large swath of the population that is unaware of this effect. Which is a problem, because the tools in place are supposed to help us find what we are looking for (whether or not someone is making money off selling us what we are looking for is a different question) but instead they are isolating us, segregating us into Reds and Blues and Greens and Purples.
MIT took a look at this problem recently:
But the solution isn’t such an easy thing to find. Most people aren’t going to actively search out opposing opinions online (unless they are in the mood to start a fight, I suppose) and most companies are not going to direct you to content you might not want. So this “bubble” as MIT refers to it, or “lens”, to take a page from Schell, is not going to go away on it’s own.
I feel that this is one of those growing pains that comes with a new technology. Like only getting the NYT delivered to your house would color your opinions based on the news delivered, this is a far tighter focus because those who post content are able to work within a tiny niche and still make money doing so. For every topic or specialty out there, there is a website (usually multiple sites) that serves it. So unless we find a way to make balancing viewpoints a profitable enterprise (both financially and intellectually) for those who use the web, this lensing effect can only get worse over time.