Citizen Media in the Age of Algorithms, Part Two
Photo via Derek DeVries
Last week, I wrote about the need to expand our definition of “citizen media.” In addition to oft-cited examples of civic media – Ushahidi, Global Voices, Twitter – other platforms have a powerful hold over how we receive civic information.
Specifically, Google and Facebook control and manage the flow of information for billions of people worldwide. But do we understand how this information is curated and presented?
For instance, it is said that Google’s algorithms take into account some 57 individual data points when processing search queries in order to customize results. This “filter bubble,” as author Eli Pariser calls it, has a strong impact on how we access the information that shapes our individual and collective decision-making.
Yet there is little mainstream discussion, before or since Pariser’s book, as to how these information filters are changing society. If, for example, I am a person with prejudices against other religions, do these tools limit my ability to see alternate viewpoints? Or will they reinforce my biases by serving me the information it believes I seek?
Assertions of technology’s neutrality ignore the fact that every algorithm has, in some way, a human judgment embedded within it. Understanding these calculations, and putting them up for civic debate, seems important to the future of citizen media.
Similarly, the engineers at Facebook make decisions to show you information based on your social network. This has important consequences for how we access ideas that shape our civic values. Rather than introducing us to people and conversations that can broaden or even expand our viewpoints, the site is designed to show us the conversations that are most comfortable and familiar.
We have always connected with one another through our social networks. Yet this tendency often leads communities to turn to segregation and exclusion at the expense of the greater good. This is a common, negative human behavior. Many cultures and religions have developed complex social norms to temper our conflicting natures in a resource-constrained world. Our act of civilization is a triumph over these default instincts towards small-group, exclusionary behavior, inherited from our animal forebears.
Facebook, with its algorithmically personalized “cool crowd,” caters to our worst tendencies to group and segregate. Though this “social graph” can be monetized, it could also lead us into a civic commons of fences and segregated neighborhoods. And Facebook is now spreading this tendency across the Internet.
I am striking a purposefully cautionary tone for an important reason. You should not mistake this caution for a belief that Facebook and Google are inherently negative; I fully recognize the positive opportunities both platforms have created. But though there is much talk about “citizen media” and new platforms for civic engagement, there is too little discussion of how developed and widely-used tools are changing the ways we come together to create a shared civic consciousness.
The idea of citizenship in a just society is based on the premise of informed consent. Only when mainstream policy discussions address the role these organizations play in shaping civic values will we have an informed digital citizenry. As citizen users of “citizen media,” we need a greater voice in the policies that our most dominant media embed inside the tools we use.