Elgan: How to pop your Internet 'filter bubble'

Personalization algorithms are stereotyping you, then hiding information from you based on that stereotype. Wait -- what?

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Facebook's antisocial filter

Facebook is less responsible, in my opinion. The social networking giant determines what appears in your "News Feed" using an algorithm called EdgeRank. (Facebook ignored my request for an interview.)

Every action you take on Facebook -- clicking "Like," commenting, sharing, etc. -- is called an "Edge" internally at Facebook. Each Edge is weighted differently according to secret criteria.

What you need to know is that relationships and content that don't get enough "Edges" will get "edged" out of existence. Facebook will cut your ties to people -- actually end the relationships you think you have -- and block content that doesn't earn enough Edge points.

For example, many Facebook friendships exist solely through reading each other's Status Updates. An old friend or co-worker talks about a new job, shares a personal triumph like reaching a weight-loss goal, and tells a story on Mother's Day about how great his mom is. He posts and you read. You feel connected to his life.

Without telling you, Facebook will probably cut that connection. Using unpublished criteria, Facebook may decide you don't care about the person and silently stop delivering your friend's posts. Your friend will assume you're still reading his updates. You'll assume he's stopped posting.

Any friends who fail to click or comment on your posts will stop getting your status updates, too. If you have 500 friends, your posts may be actually delivered to only 100 of them. There's no way for you to know who sees them and who doesn't.

Facebook also filters content. EdgeRank keeps track of how many of your friends comment on a link to content, and it will use that criteria in the default view of your News Feed, which is the "Top Stories" setting.

The vast majority of even technical, savvy people I asked about this have no idea that their friends' activities are determining what content they see and don't see on Facebook.

Why everyone is doing it

It's not just Google and Facebook that shape and filter what you see online based on invisible assumptions and behind-the-scenes stereotyping. Amazon, Netflix, Pandora and hundreds of other companies offer "recommendations" or content based on personalization algorithms.

And personalization is becoming big business. Companies like Strands license their personalization engines to other companies. Strands customers include major banks, coupon and discount services and retailers, music sites and advertising companies.

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