According to the parlance of Wikipedia, filter bubbles result when "a personalized search in which a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user. As a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles."This is the definition that undergirds the numerous thinkpieces on "popping the filter bubble," which are predicated on the fetish of digital disruption as a tactic that is inherently liberational. But there is no "way out," not in the traditional sense of bursting, popping, or breaking digital bubbles to create spaces unfettered from tracking, manipulation or enclosure.We must ask: what lies behind the bubble when it bursts? Is this pathway even emancipatory, and what is liberation leading us towards if so? What does bursting the filter bubble actually achieve, and what happens to our ideas, practices, and behaviors without the frameworks like bubbles to lend them cohesion, order, and form? In order to answer these questions and propose practical solutions to resolving the filter bubble enigma, we must make a commitment to understanding what filter bubbles are and are not, what they conceal or expose in their imbrications of material, algorithmic, ideological, and communicative infrastructures. This essay does not answer those questions, but if offers a cursory point of departure for thinking about lines of interrogation that lead towards possible answers.
What lies behind the bubble when it bursts?
Filter bubbles are technically enabled, but they are not strictly technological.
Broadly speaking, these are flat, hegemonic categories that neatly fit a systemically reinforced that understands the world of Trump vs Hillary supporters in terms of abstracted identity-politics subjected to the logic of a two-part system. It's no wonder that the number of thinkpieces on Trump supporters spawned this apt satire, which expertly foregrounds how thinking in terms of abstract identity politics yields necessarily abstract identities. Throughout the course of this election, there was so few real attempts to understand the motivations of Trump voters qua individuals. The qualities of diversity, complexity, and difference of opinion among Trump supporters were eradicated if their motives did not fit within the scope of "economic anxiety," "white supremacy" or "ignorance" as political categories. The attempts at political portraiture turned to superficial caricature. Reluctant Trumpists, trolls, silent voters, lifelong GOP supporters, strategic opportunists seizing on the tides of neonationalist ideology, overt racists—they were, and continue to be, hierarchically compressed into a one-dimensional latitude: The Trump Voter. It's as nearsighted a discursive container as "Hillary supporter" is for its eradication of difference.
Overeducated, out-of touch — Undereducated, ignorant
Establishment — Anti-establishment
Elite, Financially Stable — White Working Poor
Ideologue, Feminazi — Racist, Fascist
Privileged — Economically anxious
Politically correct — Politically marginalized
Hypocrites — Voting "against self-interest"
This is also why, in the wake of Donald Trump's election, it is ironic that so many people took to social media to voice shock and incomprehensibility: "Who are these Trump voters?!" "I don't know anyone that voted for Trump!" "This is unthinkable!" "This is unspeakable." The left's reaction was to scream dissent into the digital abyss, an attempt to puncture the echo chamber by sounding out the depths of its plateaus: who did they think they were reaching out to on their feeds, anyway? "How did this happen?! I don't know anyone that voted for Trump!" should be a lesson for those who voted against his election. This lesson will inform the strategies we take up for repairing our fractured political platforms. Let these reactions—my own, counted among them—expose themselves as the limits of the left's socio-political imaginaries. Permit them to identify the boundary markers of the "liberal elite's" largest and most pervasive "filter bubble." Unthinkability is not a problem of cognition: unspeakability is not a problem of language.Bursting the online filter bubble will not dissolve the filter bubbles that we carry inside of us and inscribe upon the world. Popping, bursting, and disrupting does nothing if we all maintain commits to our epistemic positions on and offline. We need frameworks for thinking through our own being-in-the-world and "unfettered" information cannot give us that. We need a politics of revisability; a politics that permits individuals to incorporate and embrace new thoughts and perspectives without bursting the semipermeable membrane that contains what's thinkable in the first place. We need a politics that encourages thought-reorientation rather than ossification of belief. The bursting bubble is an image of failed communication because it upholds the impossibility of incorporating difference: it's self-annihilation; it's the idea that different ways of thinking cannot exist except "outside"; it's that idea that belief systems must be nothing if not uniform, coherent, and elegant. We need to permit ourselves the freedom not to claim all the answers as our own and the freedom to construct worldviews that contain the complexities of self-contradiction. As a political animal, we need to admit to not knowing right now; to not being able to know; to knowing and not knowing, and so on.I'll end this essay with a gesture towards generative, rather than disruptive, practices. Marc Jongen's examination of Peter Sloterdijk's conception of Bubbles as psychotypological, breathable milieus elaborates on such a politics of revisability. Sloterdijk, according to Jongen, argues for a politics of foam:"Unlike in the metaphysical, the one and whole sphere of Being, in a foamy universe of this kind there is no longer any centre from which the ―whole — which is in fact no longer a whole — might be overseen and explained. Nor is there any longer a circumference that would give boundaries and clear contours to the foam in its entirety. What there is, is different perspectives and views that shift from one bubble in the foam to the next, and the possibility for the observer of changing places between the bubbles."The success that might stem from creating foamy ecosystems seems to be hinted at by a 2013 project at Yahoo by Mounia Lalmas and Daniel Quercia and Eduardo Graells-Garrido at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. The researchers nudged "users to read content from people who may have opposite views, or high view gaps…while still being relevant according to their preferences." The success of this algorithmic intervention demonstrates how gradual, curated exposure to different ideas might make people more receptive to considering alternative viewpoints: the results suggests that "people can be more open than expected to ideas that oppose their own." An experiment like this one shows how, perhaps, the tools of algorithmic curation and the feedforward and feedback loops that strengthen filter bubbles can be appropriated and reprogrammed. In other words, perhaps they can be reformatted to react with user behaviour, but against content, to transform social media platforms into ecosystems that stimulate the intersection of different worldviews rather than side-lining or concealing them. [Of course, other problems persist: Who develops these tools, who encodes these ideologies, who measures the metrics of engagement, who owns these social media platforms?]What it comes down to is this: we need to think of ways to create communities of radical exchange and forgo the idea that emancipation is located in a practice of bursting filter bubbles. One way to approach this is to appropriate the tools and platforms that constrain us in our social media bubbles to design new platforms [or pressure existing ones] to turn the logic of the filter bubble against itself. Of course, in order for new informational patterns to yield receptivity to new ideas, we must be committed to a project of political reorientation, epistemic realignment, and civil communication in the first place. The impossibility of completing this project is also the challenge to continue. Maybe one place to start is by building platforms—in politics, media, society—around the image of bubbles-becoming-foam.
Exposure to new ideas and a commitment to listening are not the same.