Shoes and the filter bubble

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Every semester I show my mass comm class this video about the filter bubble. I do it for two reasons. First, I want them to understand that when they Google something, they aren’t getting a full selection of all the available choices and that they must make a greater effort to get the information they’re searching for. Second, I want them to know about how they are being tracked online. That they’re being served content — ads, news links, Netflix recommendations — based on what an algorithm interprets about them

It’s a popular video and we discuss it and ways to get out of the bubble.

Today, I got this email from one of my students, Nikki Meyer:

“So, I know class is over and all, but I was thinking back to our discussion on the filter bubble, and I just had to tell you what’s been happening to me the past few weeks. I recently got a job at a restaurant and needed to buy sturdy black shoes. For the past month, I have been Googling lots of things like ‘black server shoes’ and ‘black walking shoes’ and eventually found a pair, ordered them, got them, all good, great.

“But now every time I watch a YouTube video, the advertisement that plays in the beginning is for a company called Shoes for Crews that, as the title suggests, sells black shoes for crew workers. The first time I saw the ad, I thought, ‘Oh, how funny,’ but now it has happened so many times that it’s actually driving me crazy and I want it to stop but I don’t know how.

“It’s a perfect example of a negative side to the filter bubble — personalized advertising.”

I post it here for two reasons: I think the filter bubble is worth everyone knowing about, although not necessarily worrying about. And because people who worry about “kids these days” are wasting their mental bandwidth. College students are smart and aware and attentive. Most of the ones I teach know more about Libya than they know about Lindsay Lohan. And, as Nikki did, they take what they learn and apply it.

(Nikki has read and approved this post. She’s an econ major, although I’ll continue to try to turn her to journalism.)

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