Call it the New Digital Divide. In the early days of the Web, social innovation leaders predicted it would spawn a more open and democratic society. Today, though, that hope is being strongly challenged.

According to Eli Pariser, a cofounder and former Executive Director of MoveOn.org, data aggregators like Google have started using increasingly sophisticated filters to decide what information we consume online—and these new levels of data-filtering, along with the growth of social networks that aggregate like-minded souls—are threatening civic engagement. The filtering, he told people attending this week’s Personal Democracy Forum in Manhattan, is starting to keep us from being exposed to a fast-growing amount of information and ideas—and chiefly, viewpoints that may differ from our own.

For example, Pariser says, Google now uses 57 different personalization filters to customize what we see on the Web, even if we aren’t logged in. That makes it harder for us to see news and information that Google’s algorithms suggest might bore us or upset us. And that’s not all, says Pariser. Often these “filter bubbles” are keeping information from us without our specific permission—or worse, without our knowledge. Facebook also customizes content, using information on the links people click to customize the news that appears in their personal feed. [Pariser, a progressive, says he has tried hard to add conservatives to his Facebook feed but their feeds and links keep getting blocked from his page by Facebook’s personalization algorithms.]

“What you see on your screen may be very different from what the person sitting next to you sees,” Pariser told the gathering of more than 600 social change advocates, social entrepreneurs and open-government activists. “...We really need to get away from that silly idea that (computer) code doesn’t care about anything.”

To be sure, data segmentation isn’t new. But these new filter bubbles differ from what we’ve seen before, and in three ways, Pariser says. First, the degree of personalization is higher. You’re no longer simply being grouped with a bunch of people who read The Nation. The personalization is more selective than that: you’re now alone in your bubble. Second, filter bubbles are invisible. You don’t realize they exist. And third, you don’t choose the filter. It chooses you. “As the face of curation of what we see and consume online changes from a person to a machine, we need to start questioning the values of these filtering devices and get the power back to make these decisions for ourselves,” Pariser says. “The filter bubble may be good for consumers but it’s bad for democracy.”

Other assertions made by presenters:

There is racial segregation on the Web, even among trending topics on Twitter. According to data visualization experts Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, the thousands of hashtags being used to collate and segment different conversations by topic also may be keeping many people out of the short-messaging site’s most popular and/or important conversations. Example: Two of the top-trending topics over the recent Memorial Day weekend—#cookout and #oilspill—were starkly segmented along racial lines. Viegas said the #cookout conversation was attended mostly by blacks and #oilspill, mostly by whites during the same period. “Hashtags are the bumper stickers of the 21st Century,” said Wattenberg. Added Viegas: “On many topics, it’s a heterogeneous crowd, but there’s a whole other chunk of topics where race divides people. We need to be aware that even online, we can be immersing ourselves in conversations that are segregated in ways that might be worrisome.”

We are not using the social media tools we have to solve problems so much as we are using them to socialize with like-minded people about these problems. It’s time to get more active offline, said Clay Johnson, the director of Sunlight Labs and cofounder of the online political strategy firm, Blue State Digital. Social entrepreneurs and activists need to focus less on using social media to build email lists and focus more on getting people active offline solving social problems, he said. He cited the online social network, Momsrising.org, as a good example of a social network that is highly civically engaged, using government data on health, education and economic trends to create a “Moms Score” to help catalyze offline protests and social change.

We must work harder to break out of our self-imposed (or machine-imposed) comfort zones if we’re to affect social change. “We are too focused on climbing the hierarchy ladder in our workplaces and social networks online, and not focused enough on dismantling these hierarchies, which is where the true power lies,” said Deanna Zandt, a social media consultant and author of Share This! a book about social networking. “We’re living like fish right now,” she said. “We don’t know we’re wet. We’re taking our perception that the Net is a wonderful meritocracy but that’s not true. We need to interrupt this pattern of thinking immediately.” Zandt urged conferees to shatter their comfort zones to start making the Net a more hospitable place for civic engagement. “We have to work harder at civic engagement online,” she said. Zandt, who is white, shared her own experience of finding herself in an unexpected discussion on Twitter about race in America after she spoke out against an action last summer by Philadelphia’s Valley Club to ban black children from swimming in its pool. “This was completely outrageous, I got really angry about it and signed petitions and all of that, but what was more interesting was what happened in the days following that,” Zandt said. “People started sharing on Twitter about the first time they’d been discriminated against as children and this blew me away. I wouldn’t have found myself in a group of people of color, sharing stories about discrimination without Twitter” and without “stepping out.”

Stop enabling the status quo. John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a 20-year-old nonprofit digital rights advocacy group, told the gathering that he stands by his earlier statement, made many years ago, that “the Internet is the most powerful event since the capture of fire.” Its power cuts both ways. Barlow said there is massive power in the hands of individuals, thanks to the Web, but this is power that Establishment groups also can use to try to destabilize opposition. Most people, he said, still don’t know how to use the Web to organize and affect social change. But they are learning, he said. “We have to stop expecting the government to shower us with things it can no longer deliver,” he said, “and start running this country and our institutions (including companies) the same way the Internet is run, from the edges.”

What do you think? Does the surge of online social networks and corporate use of Net filters to segment consumers make it harder for people to engage civically with one another—in or out of the workplace? Let us hear from you.

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