A Digital Sounding Board: The Internet and Filter Bubbles

By Clare Nolan

Most of us have some sort of daily routine with the Internet. For example, every morning, I get up, take a shower, and then settle down in front of my computer for fifteen to twenty minutes of Internet browsing before I get ready for the day. I check my Facebook, I read the webcomics I follow, I look at my e-mail, I peruse some blogs, and I scan through viral images. Instead of morning coffee, I start my day with a blast of information. But does that blast of information contain a wide range of material from across the Internet or is it made up of content that’s been tailored just for me?

The fact is that the Internet that we see is not pure, unaffected information, but information that has gone through a variety of filters that have been placed in order to ensure that we, as users, will receive the kind of information that we most want to see. These filters involve advertisers, social media companies, search engine developers, and even self-imposed filters that we might not even be conscious of. Together, all of these filters form what author Eli Pariser refers to as “the filter bubble.” In his 2011 TED Talk, Pariser defines the filter bubble as:

Your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. And what’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But the thing is that you don’t decide what gets in. And more importantly, you don’t actually see what gets edited out. 1

Sites like Google, Facebook, and even various news sites are in the business of making sure that the content that appears on your screen is the exact content that you want to see. The reason is simple: the more they display content you want, the more time you’re going to spend on their websites, and the more they’re going to profit from the ad revenue that comes from each page you click on. They don’t have an interest in providing you with a diverse array of information, only the information that will make you stay on their site. The result is that many users find limited information, or information that merely supports what they believe/what they want to hear, when they are under the impression that they are receiving unfiltered information. Robert W. McChesney writes that filter bubbles: “keep us in a world that constantly reinforces our known interests and reduces empathy, creativity, and critical thought.”2

Filter bubbles are constructed in a variety of ways, and are designed to keep users reliant on a certain service. Pariser’s initial example is Facebook, where your News Feed is tailored based on the people you interact with on the site. Pariser tells the story of how he started to notice that his friends who posted links to politically conservative information started to vanish off of his News Feed, while the friends who posted links to politically liberal information remained.3 This is because Facebook employs an algorithm that tracks how often you interact with certain people (clicking links, liking posts, commenting, etc.) and prioritizes your News Feed based on those interactions. For Pariser, who is a self-descried liberal, this meant that his liberal friends stayed on his News Feed because he would more often interact with their posts then he would his with those of his conservative friends. He was exposed less and less to opposing view points, meaning he was offered fewer chances for debate and fewer opportunities to learn something from an unfamiliar source. This does not mean that everything people online say has value, or that all of the conservative information would even be worth Pariser’s time. However, the idea of the Open Internet where all information can be accessed equally is not the Internet we have if sites and advertisers put on our content put more and more filters on our content.

According to Facebook, the News Feed is designed this way because the large numbers of Facebook friends that users have would make the News Feed unwieldily otherwise.4 However, the negative is that users are being exposed to less information that might challenge their way of thinking, and exposed to more information that supports what they already believe. Similar algorithms and personalization techniques are used on Google, and news sites like Huffington Post, Yahoo News, Washington Post, and the New York Times.5 With all of these filters, how can we consider opposing view points? How can we engage in discussion? How can we learn anything? Pariser argues that because filter algorithms respond to what a user clicks on, that users eventually will only get content that satisfies their immediate wants and whims when online, rather than pushing them to think further. He says:

The best editing gives us a bit of both [thoughtful content and fun content]. It gives us a little bit of Justin Bieber and a little bit of Afghanistan. It gives us some information vegetables; it gives us some information dessert. And the challenge with these kinds of algorithmic filters, these personalized filters, is that, because they’re mainly looking at what you click on first, it can throw off that balance. And instead of a balanced information diet, you can end up surrounded by information junk food.6

The problem is, content providers, search engines, and advertisers don’t necessarily see a reason to provide users with the sort of Internet that offers them both ‘vegetables’ and ‘desert’. The system currently in place makes money, and as long as these companies are profiting, they have a limited investment in what content their users are consuming.

The more that individuals are exposed to views and information that validates and enforces their current world view, the harder it becomes to converse with others about those views, especially in a digital format. Filters help convince users that their opinions are more valid than the opinions of others, and people start to create online communities where little debate is welcomed and users mostly share the same opinions. People who don’t share those opinions might be engaged in debate, but a debate that happens face-to-face is a very different kind of debate than the kind that often happens online. So much of Internet debates boil down to people slinging insults, shutting other people down, or overusing the caps lock to make their point. Online discourse is so commonly difficult that if you search “arguing on the internet” you get a slew of images mocking the idea of online debate.7 If online users were exposed to a wider variety of content that challenged their world views, would the nature of online debate change?

Webcomic artist Cameron Davis’ interpretation of online debates. From my own experiences, this certainly doesn’t apply only to men.

The good news is that while content providers and advertisers may not be interested in popping the filter bubble, there are ways that Internet users can lessen the effects that filter bubbles have on their online experience. Pariser’s website, The Filter Bubble, has a list of ten ways to reduce the effect of the filters. These techniques include deleting cookies and browser histories, setting stricter privacy settings, using browsers and sites that allow users to access the internet without providing their IP addresses, and depersonalizing browsers.8 The other helpful thing is to make users aware of the filter bubble. We might be stuck with filters, but if we are aware that they are there and what they are doing to our online experience then we can compensate for those effects and search out information that we might not normally find otherwise. The internet may be a fantastic source of information, but if we do not utilize it properly, what’s the point of having that information source in the first place?

  1. Pariser, E. (Feb. 2011) Eli Praiser: Beware online “filter bubbles”. (Video file). Retrieved from  http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles/
  2. McChesney, R. W. (2013). Digital disconnect: How capitalism is turning the internet against democracy. The New Press: New York.
  3. Pariser, E. (Feb. 2011) Eli Praiser: Beware online “filter bubbles”. (Video file). Retrieved from  http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles/
  4. Hicks, M. (2010, August 6). Facebook tips: What’s the difference between top news and most recent? (Web log post). Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/notes/facebook/facebook-tips-whats-the-difference-between-top-news-and-most-recent/414305122130
  5. Pariser, E. (Feb. 2011) Eli Praiser: Beware online “filter bubbles”. (Video file). Retrieved from  http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles/
  6. Ibid.
  7. Though to be fair, this is possibly affected by Google’s filters on my search.
  8. Pariser, E. (2011) Ten ways to pop your filter bubble. Retrieved from http://www.thefilterbubble.com/10-things-you-can-do

The ‘Transformative Community Based Library’ in School Librarianship

By Clare Nolan

It is almost taken for granted that the goal of Librarianship is to serve the needs of the communities that utilize the library. However, that concept raises the question of how exactly librarians should serve those needs. Do librarians decide what is best for their communities? Do they select books and materials that they specifically deem valuable? Or does the community get a say in what exactly will satisfy its needs? Rather than separate the librarian and the patron, we should instead look at them as part of the same community, where both the opinion of the library and the opinion of community come together to create a space where both views have equal weight.

In their article “Transformative Library Pedagogy and Community Based Libraries: A Freirean Perspective,” Martina Rielder and Mustafa Yunus propose the idea of the “Transformative Community Based Library (TCBL)”.1 They write:

The TCBL model identifies libraries as democratic and educational sites for a community of learners who construct library practices as an interactive process between the present and the future of the community. It therefore encourages library visitors to reflect critically on the information provided, not simply as individual learners but as politically aware members of a community. (201o, p.93)

The TCBL is based on the Paulo Freire’s model of education, presented in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which bucks against the traditional “banking” model of education where teachers communicate set knowledge and students memorize that information in order to repeat it back.2 The Freirean model of education proposes that teacher and student work together in the learning process, that the student has a base of existing knowledge that can be expanded on by the teacher, and that the teacher is capable of learning from the student. For example, a traditional classroom might be solely lecture-based, but a Freirean classroom would be seminar/discussion based, putting student voices on the same level as that of their instructor.

While Freire was specifically talking about the classroom, it is easy to see how the banking model vs. the Freirean model applies to libraries. A banking approach to Librarianship would be a library where all decisions are made by the library, and the community is merely presented with materials that has been deemed worthwhile for said community. The community uses only those materials, and little growth occurs. Meanwhile, the Feirean approach to Librarianship would be the TCBL, a library where there is a constant dialogue between the library and the community, resulting in a library that fully serves its community and provides community enhancement. The TCBL recognizes that the patrons and the community are integral parts of the process of library development, and that libraries have the ability to be centers of community empowerment and transformation.

Rielder and Yunus seem to speak more about the TCBL as a library that serves a larger community, such as a neighborhood. However, the TCBL model can be applied to many different fields of librarianship and many different kind of communities. One such field that would greatly benefit from the TCBL model is the field of School Librarianship, particularly school libraries that serve primary and secondary schools.

School libraries are supposed to be spaces that not only enhance the curriculum and provide guidance on the appropriate use of information, but also spaces that foster a real love of learning and reading. Three of the nine Information Literacy Standards set by the American Association of School Librarians refer to this goal, stating that the students up to standard should: “pursue information related to personal interests”, “appreciate literature and other creative expressions of information”, and “strive for excellence in information and knowledge generation” (1998, p. 8-9).3 Yet, many libraries, particularly secondary libraries, are not always utilized in ways that would help students to meet these standards. In fact, many students see the library as a place to spend a free period or avoid rather than a space they can use to enhance their education, let alone find material to be used outside of the classroom.

Why is this? Perhaps it is because many school libraries do not necessarily feel like community spaces to students. The library’s collection may only contain books that pertain to the curriculum, or may only have books that the librarian deems appropriate for the students without student input. The Library Media Specialist may barely interact with the students. I recall in my own high school library that while I spent a lot of time there doing homework, I don’t think I ever exchanged more than a few words with my high school LMS. She was completely separate from her students. This kind of library, like the banking model of education, may be adequate for providing set knowledge to the community (coming from the school district, state standards, curriculum needs, etc.), but it does nothing to really help its core community (the students) learn and thrive. It attempts to serve a community that it is disconnected from, and so it fails.

However, a library that follows the TCBL model, and really partners with its students, has the ability to actually succeed in its goals to promote information literacy and passion for reading and learning. If students feel that they have a voice in the development and management of the library, it stops being a space that they can be in and becomes a space that they take ownership of. Rielder and Yunus write “If learning involves the ability to negotiate new meanings and become a new person, it requires a space, a community, a counter public within which learners can engage with others in joint practice” (2010, p.95). In the context of the school library, the students have to feel like their library truly represents their needs and their interests, not just the needs and interests that the school district says they’re supposed to have. This type of library is what really drives learning outside of the classroom and strengthens a students education.

There are Library Media Specialists who are developing libraries that really do represent their communities needs and interests, with strong results. For example, the School Library Journal recently reported on the LMS at Chicago’s Wendell Phillips Academy High School: K.C. Boyd. When Boyd first started teaching as the LMS at Wendell Phillips, the school library was underutilized by the student body. Boyd had to “drag kids” into the library, but now the students come willingly and the library is one of the most popular spaces in the school.4 How did Boyd accomplish this? By paying attentions to what her community, her students, needed from the library and shaping the library around those needs.

K.C. Boyd working with students in the Wendell Phillips library. Taken from School Library Journal.

Boyd began to purchase manga, poetry, supernatural stories, and street lit for her library because it was what her students wanted.5 School Library Journal’s Mahnaz Dar notes that many educators may shy away from the street lit genre, but Boyd has proved that it has an important place in her library. Dar writes:

Boyd’s willingness to purchase these titles shows a deep understanding and perception of her community. Many of her students come from neighborhoods where violence or crime is common. She can warn them against risky or dangerous behavior, she says, but “if they read a story with characters in similar situations, that story sits with them much more than what I would ever say. Street lit feeds into the social and emotional issues my students are dealing with.”6

Boyd, as an LMS, has created a library where the students are active participants in how their library runs, how collections development works, and how they learn and engage with information. Like a teacher might work with a student in the Freirean model of education, Boyd recognizes that she must help her students shape their own education process rather than tell them what their education process will be. Boyd’s library, which matches the description of the TCBL, has proved to be very effective. The school’s ranking has improved, ACT scores are higher, and the Class of 2014 collectively earned $2.3 million in scholarship funds.7 While, of course, there are other factors in play, and Boyd is not solely responsible for these changes, she certainly plays an important role in her school’s improvement by managing a library that represents and incorporates the student community.

The Transformative Community Based Library model is extremely beneficial to school librarianship, especially since the model has its roots in education theory. If the field of classroom education wants to move away from the banking model, why shouldn’t the school library follow suit? Library Media Specialists, like Boyd, have shown that the TCBL model is effective, and better helps students achieve information literacy standards. There will be barriers like budgeting, district regulations, and administrative support, but overall, if schools adopt the TCBL model, they will better serve their community and provide real enrichment for their students.

  1. Rielder, M and Yunus, M. (2010). Transformative library pedagogy and community based libraries: a freirean perspective. In G. J. Leckie, L. M. Given and J. E. Buschman (Eds). Critical theory for library and information science. (pp. 89-99). Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.
  2. Freire, P. (1968). The pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic. Reprinted in 2000.
  3. The American Association of School Librarians and The Association for Educational Communications and Technology. (1998). Information power: building partnerships for learning. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.
  4. Daz, M. (2014). Chicago hope: high school librarian k.c. boyd. School library journal, October vol. Retrieved from http://www.slj.com/2014/10/librarians/chicago-hope-high-school-librarian-k-c-boyd/
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.

Libraries and Their Communities: Observations at the Washington Heights Library

By Clare Nolan

In December of 2013, the Pew Research Center released a study entitled “How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities” that sought to explore the relationships between libraries and the communities they serve. Over six thousand Americans ages sixteen and over were surveyed over the course of two months via landlines and cell phones, both in English and in Spanish. 1

The study determined that while 48% of Americans visited the library within the past 12 months,  that in general women, African-Americans, Hispanics, low income adults, and adults with less education were more likely than other groups to say that the library and the services that it provides are “very important”. Services listed as important were “using the internet, computers, or printers”, “having a quiet and safe place to spend time, read, or study”, “assistance in applying for government programs, permits, or licenses”, “help finding or applying for a job”, and “getting help from a librarian finding information”. It is logical that these services are more valued by people who have less privilege. If you don’t have the money to purchase them, books and media may only be accessible through the library. If you can’t afford an after school program, it makes sense to attend free youth programs. If you don’t have the tools to find a better job in your own home, then finding them in the library is advantageous to you.

A chart showing the percentage of Americans 16+ who say that library sources are "very important" by race.

A chart showing the percentage of Americans 16+ who say that library sources are “very important” by race.

A chart showing the percentage of Americans 16+ who say that library sources are "very important" by income.

A chart showing the percentage of Americans 16+ who say that library sources are “very important” by income

Studies like this raise the question of “who is the library for?” in modern America. Before we can think of what we can do to improve the quality of public libraries, it is important to look at who is using public libraries, and what it is being used for. If the majority of Americans who use and value the library are people of color and low income individuals, shouldn’t we put effort into providing better service and funding to libraries that serve those individuals? André Cossette wrote in “Humanism and Libraries” that “the work of a librarianship is truly a human endeavor, that is to say an activity of humankind, that had as its end the well being of humankind.” 2 But humanity is not a homogenous group, and if librarians are going to seek to strive for the well being of humankind, it should examine the individual communities that rely the most on the library, and seek to address the specific needs of individual communities.

While writing this,  I sat in the Washington Heights Library, a branch of the New York Public Library, located at 1000 St. Nicholas Avenue, at the corner of 160th Street. Recently reopened, the Washington Heights Library is a library that was designed to serve the community that surrounds it. This is apparent just by sitting in the main reading room. Each shelf is labeled not only in English, but in Spanish, as a large percentage of the community is comprised of Spanish speakers. There is even an entire shelf dedicated to books in Spanish, which one might not find at a library in another neighborhood. There are large quantities of computers available, almost all of which are in use, and plenty of space available for anyone who might want to study, read, or simply spend some time in the quiet.

After a 12.4 million dollar renovation, the Washington Heights Library reopened in February 2014, prepped to serve its community, which is primarily made up of people of color and low income residents. Not only was the space renovated, but an emphasis was placed on providing increased technology to the community. The library reopened with twenty-five desktop PCs, sixteen laptops, and twenty-four Apple computers. 3 All told, the library possesses forty-nine more computers then when it closed for renovations in 2010. The library also boasts one of the largest children’s rooms, 3,300 square feet, in the entire New York Public Library system. However, not only children use the children’s section of the Library. According to library manager Vianela Rivas, adult patrons who are learning English often use it. 4

The  Washington Heights Library is a prime example of a library that focuses on the specific needs of its community. It is well used by the community as a whole. During my time there, I saw patron after patron walk through the library doors. There was a wide range of ages, from parents and their young children, to pre-teens and teenagers, to adults. The computers were in constant use, and for a wide variety of purposes. Patrons sat and browsed the internet and social media sites, did personal work and homework, and played computer games. A group of ever changing adolescents clustered around the computers in front of the reference desk, their volume always rising to the point where they needed to be shushed by the librarian behind the desk, albeit in a loving sort of way.

The Washington Heights Library was lucky that it was able to acquire the $12.4 million it needed to accomplish the renovation and turn the branch into a strong resource for the community.  Even so, there is still space in the library that could be utilized if the money was only there. The entire third floor still needs to be renovated 5, and until then the space is wasted. Imagine what could be there if there was more money. Study rooms? A technology lab? A maker space? Periodical storage?  These are things that patrons in libraries housed in more affluent neighborhoods may take for granted, or may even get less use than they would in a library that serves a low income population. There are patrons of the Washington Heights library who come to the branch because it provides them access to resources and information that they might not have at home, whether that’s computers, a high speed internet connection, books and DVDs, or even a quiet place to just sit for a moment.

For many, the library is not just a luxury, it is a necessary part of their lives, and this should be taken into account when it comes to funding, project development, and budgeting. The Washington Heights branch was given the resources it needed to better serve its community, and it is obvious just by being in the library that the community is benefiting from those resources. If we are truly trying to strive for the well being of humankind, then we need to evaluate where exactly our resources go, who is using them, and the level of impact it could have on the community.

  1. Zickhur, K., Raine L., Purcell K., and Duggan M. (2013). How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities. Retrieved from http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2013/12/11/about-this-report/

  2. Cossette, A. (1976). Humanism and Libraries.Duluth: Library Juice Press. Reprinted in 2009.
  3. Dunlap, D. W. (Feb.26, 2014). “After 4-Year Overhaul, Library is to Reopen in Washington Heights”. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/27/nyregion/washington-heights-library-renovated-is-to-reopen.html?_r=0
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
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