There is no neutral interface

“What are we optimizing for? Is it for civic responsibility? Personal relevance? Quality? Truthiness? Diversity of sources and viewpoints? Time on site? Time well spent?”

Whether you get your news direct from publications and their apps, or through Google, Facebook, or news aggregating apps, access points to information are increasingly personalized. That is, there is no neutral experience, no standard editorial vision for above-the-fold importance.

Based on observed and tracked previous behaviors, personalization and recommendation systems make a lot of assumptions about users’ interests and intentions.

The key question for readers and filtering interfaces will be: What are we optimizing for? Is it for civic responsibility? Personal relevance? Quality? Truthiness? Diversity of sources and viewpoints? Time on site? Time well spent?

As a response to the increasing awareness of the filter bubble problem, we may start to see third-party services allowing consumers to subscribe to a third-party filter proxy, reflecting their preference and intended optimization strategy, rather than a generic optimization algorithm. This kind of editorial outsourcing may be one of Facebook’s only options, should it continue to eschew classification as media company and arbiter of content.

Sara M. Watson is a technology critic and affiliated with Digital Asia Hub, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

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