Last year, when cyber-Cassandras began to fret over Google personalization, The Slate Group Editor-in-Chief Jacob Weisberg ran an experiment. “I asked a few of my Twitter followers and Facebook friends to search four terms that seemed likely to show ideological fragmentation,” he recounts. The terms? “ ‘John Boehner,’ ‘Barney Frank,’ ‘Ryan Plan,’ and ‘Obamacare.’ ” After the guinea pigs, including a Wall Street Republican and a “quasi-socialist,” found little variation in their results, Weisberg became an evangelist for the notion that filter bubbles exist only in theory. (To the claim that we seek out like-minded voices online even without Google’s help, he replies, “Why assume that when people have more options, they will choose to live in an echo chamber?”)
Far from pinching our political field of vision, Weisberg thinks the Web bombards us with new ideas. He’ll argue that the Internet is not closing our minds when it comes to politics at the Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate on April 17. Weisberg began his career at the New Republic and has appeared on the pages of Slate, the New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, and Vanity Fair, among other publications. Recently, I talked to him about the Internet and politics, news customization, and his “nightmare vision” of a reader who only cares about the Chicago Bulls, online gambling, and beer.
Slate: You’ll be debating whether or not the Internet closes our minds when it comes to politics. Who is “the Internet?”
Jacob Weisberg: In this case, it’s websites that either provide or filter the news in some way. It’s really a response to the theory that because so many tools and sites on the Web aim to provide some kind of personalization, they narrow our political perspective and leave us only talking to people who agree with us. So in one sense, that’s Google and Facebook, and in another sense it’s different kinds of partisan websites.
Slate: Could “the Internet” be users too? People whose impulses to self-segregate are abetted by the technology?
Weisberg: That probably is part of the argument—that on the Internet, people sequester themselves and end up engaging mostly with those they already agree with. But I don’t think that tendency is any more prevalent on the Web than it is in real life. To the extent there’s any evidence at all, it points more in the direction of people engaging with a broader range of opinions, because of the broader range that’s available. Basically I think this is an issue in theory and not in practice. In my own experience both as a consumer of information and someone who pays close attention to politics, the Internet has the effect of broadening my range of sources and voices. It doesn’t leave me narrower in any respect.
Slate: So, for you, the converse is true? Instead of closing our minds in politics, the Internet is opening our minds?
Weisberg: Exactly. The entire march of technology and information for hundreds of years has been toward a broader diversity of sources. If you wanted a period when the media or technology was really constricting viewpoints to a narrow range, that would have been before the Internet, when people could only get their news from local newspapers, a few national magazines, and three national television networks. It would be very strange if the effect of the march of progress was to close down our perspectives instead of opening them up.
Slate: Do you search Google with personalization on or off?
Weisberg: It’s funny: The personalization option was added pretty recently. It’s opt out. I actually did some tests on it right before they made it an explicit option, when it was supposed to be built in. I ran searches and I had other people run the same searches on political topics. And I couldn’t detect anything at all that amounted to political filtering. The filtering had more to do with location, with demographics. Anyway, I haven’t turned off Google personalized search yet. And I don’t really feel like you need to. But it’d be worth running the test again.
Slate: In a round table discussion published by On the Media in June 2011, you clarify that you “won’t say [you’re] not worried about the effects of personalization.”
Weisberg: Like a lot of changes, it will undoubtedly involve a combination of good and bad effects. I suspect that the good effects will very much outweigh the bad ones, but that doesn’t mean that everything about it will be good or has to be good. You have this first hurdle: Nobody’s figured out how to personalize the news effectively. If you go to the major news sites, there’s very little personalization that actually takes place. I think we’re dealing mainly with a theoretical problem. If the problem is solved through technology—if the news sites become much better at personalizing news—there certainly is the risk that people will not be as broadly informed about a range of things. Bad personalization would be just telling people about what they expressed an interest in. But I also think that would be a news product not many people would want. It would exclude the news, almost by definition. When there’s an earthquake in Haiti, you want to read about Haiti. But not many people would necessarily have said they were interested in Haiti or earthquakes in Haiti before one happened. So part of the problem of news personalization is that it’s hard to know what people will be interested in. But I do think that it’s theoretically possible that you could overdo it.