The Internet, the Public Sphere, Persuasion Profiling, and Filter Bubbles

Posted: May 17, 2011 in Academics, Advertising, Branding, Industry Research, Marketing, Search, Social Media, Tools/Gadgets
Tags: , , , , , ,

The other day I was reading through my May issue of Wired Magazine, and I came across a short article about a newly developed technique in online marketing that will soon become everyone’s new reality. The new technique is called “persuasion profiling,” and it’s an offshoot of the personalization and recommendation engine modes of online marketing. As the author of this article described the new technique, “it doesn’t just find content you might enjoy. It figures out how you think.”

Basically this new technique doesn’t just monitor what you are lured into clicking on, it also takes note of which strategies of persuasion work best on you, and which don’t. As the author of the article explained, “By alternating the types of pitches, Appeal to Authority (‘Malcolm Gladwell says you’ll like this’), Social Proof (‘All your friends on Facebook are buying this book’), and the like- [the scientist] could track which mode of argument was most persuasive for each person.”

Once enough information about your psychological weaknesses is uncovered, web-based marketers will be able to essentially profile which types of advertising will most appeal to those areas of weakness, and exploit them to help sell you more stuff. Additionally, the studies conducted found that your weaknesses are the same no matter what the product- whether clothes, home furnishings, cars, etc.

So I found this article pretty interesting and well laid out, and then my brother mentioned a concept developed by author Eli Pariser called “online filter bubbles” one day when we were discussing the annoyingly narrow scope of our respective Facebook news feeds. Pariser’s argument is basically that the programmers of the modern web are personalizing our content to such an extent that they are, in essence, selecting what’s important FOR US, rather than the other way around. He suggested I watch the video. Which I did, and you should too.

Then I realized, the article in Wired and this TED Talk? Same guy (speaking of filter bubbles…?).

Well, he’s promoting a book, so we can’t blame him for being everywhere. Besides, this really is an excellent TED Talk- it’s a good example of why TED Talks are so compelling. [I should say here, if you’re not familiar with TED Talks, a) where the hell have you been?, and b) go get familiar-NOW. ]

In his talk on the concept of online filter bubbles, Pariser starts his talk with an anecdote: “A journalist was asking Mark Zuckerberg a question about the news feed. And the journalist was asking him, “Why is this so important?” And Zuckerberg said, “A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” And I want to talk about what a Web based on that idea of relevance might look like.

So what he’s getting at is a few things. 1) The internet is really, really, large. Anyone who has attempted to explore its depths knows this. 2) We are an information society- there is so much information flying at us now at any given time from any number of different devices, it’s impossible to stay afloat. 3) But that doesn’t mean that any platform, company or tool gets to decide what IS important, and what is NOT.

In response to this, my first thoughts flew to Jurgen Habermas and his theories of the centrality of a healthy public sphere to the success of a democracy.

What is a “public sphere” you ask? OK, this is where Wikipedia becomes useful, folks. Do me a favor and look it up here so I don’t have to expound that much on it. But the gist of the concept of a public sphere is this: “The public sphere is an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action.”

Many of you who are now being introduced to this concept for the first time will see the very obvious correlation to the original intent of the internet as a social and discursive space where people could freely communicate. Only, Habermas introduced this concept pre-internet, around 1962. And he was largely referencing the importance of the press when he introduced it. Smarty pants, eh? Anyhow, the importance of the internet as the focal embodiment of a modern public sphere is what Pariser is getting at here, and he sort of spells that out later in his talk:

“In 1915, it’s not like newspapers were sweating a lot about their civic responsibilities. Then people noticed that they were doing something really important. That, in fact, you couldn’t have a functioning democracy if citizens didn’t get a good flow of information. That the newspapers were critical, because they were acting as the filter, and then journalistic ethics developed. It wasn’t perfect, but it got us through the last century. And so now, we’re kind of back in 1915 on the Web. And we need the new gatekeepers to encode that kind of responsibility into the code that they’re writing.”

This is where it got really good, because Pariser basically called out Larry & Sergey in front of the TED audience:

“I know that there are a lot of people here from Facebook and from Google — Larry and Sergey — people who have helped build the Web as it is, and I’m grateful for that. But we really need you to make sure that these algorithms have encoded in them a sense of the public life, a sense of civic responsibility. We need you to make sure that they’re transparent enough that we can see what the rules are that determine what gets through our filters. And we need you to give us some control, so that we can decide what gets through and what doesn’t.”

Which is really the battle cry from this talk, and his whole point. He is asking major web-based companies to relinquish some of the control that they have actively seized over our internet use. In essence, Pariser is waving a red flag that the new waves of much-lauded personalization, and persuasion analysis are cutting down the scope of each of our online experiences into pre-conceived, pre-determined pathways based on past behavior.

Anyone who was a teenager- or was previously someone they don’t currently fully admire – can see the error in this strategy. As humans we change, we grow, we evolve. Pariser’s point is that we need to be exposed to new influences and new information in order to continue to evolve and grow, “Because I think we really need the Internet to be that thing that we all dreamed of it being. We need it to connect us all together. We need it to introduce us to new ideas and new people and different perspectives. And it’s not going to do that if it leaves us all isolated in a Web of one.”

I think he’s completely right. Actually, it makes me laugh because when you really break it down, marketers and advertisers are paying top dollar to help develop persuasion analysis and personalization technologies based on our previous behavior. All of that money and time invested goes into analyzing our histories online, but what they’re really trying to do is convince us to create a new version of ourselves by purchasing their products. Odd, no?

UPDATE: Pariser has a new article in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/23/opinion/23pariser.html?src=recg

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Comments
  1. cantueso says:

    You say
    “but what they’re really trying to do is convince us to create a new version of ourselves by purchasing their products.”

    Remember, remember they don’t have to convince all of us. They will just convince some 99.99%, and then…?!

    The way this Facebook has become next to obligatory ? I still find it shocking.

    • Hi Cantueso, thanks for the read and the comment. Agreed, they don’t have to convince all of us- or even 99.9%. They just have to convince enough “influencers” in a given community- whether online or offline- and the trend will spread.

      I also can’t believe how quickly Facebook has become an integral part of our lives. I can’t believe when I was in undergraduate I didn’t have a cell phone and my internet connection was only marginally better than dial-up. Look at us now- it’s a brave new world. I guess my theory has been that learning how it works (not just technically, but also philosophically) is really the obligatory part of responsible technology adoption because if you know the science beneath it, the hope is that you can remain safely detached.

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