Laptop and phone on bed with woman

Do You Live in an Online Bubble?

For anyone who spends any amount of time enjoying or creating social media, the answer to the above question is undoubtedly a “probably” or even a resounding “yes”.

By now, the idea of The Facebook Algorithm has become synonymous with a 1984-esque surveillance mechanism that seems interested in telling us what to buy, who to hate, and who to vote for. And, according to Slate Magazines’ Will Oremus, one of the few rare outsiders allowed into Facebook’s beating heart, that’s pretty much true.

“What they’re doing all day is coming through spreadsheets and databases to figure out what’s working and what’s not working,” Oremus told BBC’s The Inquiry podcast.

“There is a shadow purpose to everything you do. Every action that you take on Facebook doubles as a source of data for Facebook to get to know you better.”

As a result, Facebook tends to show you more of what you’ve reacted to in the past, doubling-down on the assumption that you’ll be interested in more of the same. This then crowds out anything that you might not particularly “like”, creating what Upworthy’s Eli Pariser calls ‘virtual small towns’.

Pariser coined the term ‘filter bubble’ in his 2011 book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You to describe these self-reinforcing insulated online spaces. Eerily, it’s only become truer as the years go by, with the Internet becoming increasingly partisan, and Pariser argues, ‘more divided’ than ever.

If the idea of living in a bubble, surrounded by ideas that have been especially served to you based upon your likelihood of “liking”, “commenting”, or “sharing” them, gives you the heebie-jeebies, there are several things you can do to shake up your virtual echo-chamber.

Keep your non-friends on your friend list on Facebook

Sometimes we want to just unfriend someone because we’ve suddenly learned their views on breastfeeding vs formula, vaccines, religion, same-sex marriage – name a contentious topic. While it can be good for our own sanity to not see their posts, banishing them from your feed completely will mean you don’t get the full picture.

Click on something you wouldn’t normally engage with

By clicking on things that you don’t necessarily agree with or find interesting, you’re sending a message to The Algorithm to offer you a broader range of posts.

Delete your cookies regularly

Travellers are aware of this one. Ever been back to a website for an airfare and suddenly noticed it’s gone up? Delete the cookies in your web browser and try the site again. Websites know if you have visited before using a little piece of code called a “cookie” that is downloaded by your browser the first time you visit. Shake things up by deleting your cookies often, or browse using your browsers “private” or “incognito” mode.

Unfollow someone you know too well

Do you have a page or friend who always gets your “likes”? Cut it out for a week or more to send The Algorithm a message that you’re not so easily satisfied.

Log out

It might not make a difference to the algorithms themselves, but it will make a big difference to your brain. Find other sources of news and opinion that aren’t published online, especially if you found them on a social media feed. Strike up conversations with your neighbours, read print publications, and diversify your sources of information.

Photography by Mikayla Maliek