The good news is that the Internet has given us greater access to extended family, news from remote parts of the globe and pictures of exotic genitals we would have never been able to see in the real world. The bad news is that the Internet is also pitting neighbor against neighbor in new and innovative ways that only technology could have made possible.
The worse news? It's not getting better any time soon, thanks to ...
5 New Algorithms That Make Sure You Only Talk to People You Agree With
The only reason you know anything about how to be a good human being is because other people told you when you screwed up. It's not pleasant being told you smell or that your jokes aren't funny or that your scrotum has fallen out of your pants, but it's also the only way you know to start showering or learn funnier jokes or move to a more open-minded neighborhood. You already knew this -- we all can think of rich people and celebrities who are surrounded by "yes men" who never give them honest feedback and who get so disconnected that they basically go crazy (see: Michael Jackson, George Lucas).
Yet the Internet is building that bubble of "yes men" around you, right now, and you don't even notice. For instance, everyone's favorite social networking site, Facebook, is filtering your friends according to how much you agree with them. It's not some crazy conspiracy theory, it's a computer algorithm. Here:
There's a downside to kids paying too much attention in math class.
What, did you think that Facebook just gave you all of your friends' updates in order? Nope -- not unless you tell it to. By default, it filters them according to your preferences, and it knows your preferences because it keeps track of all of the links you click on. If you click on a lot of left-wing news stories, it will start filtering out your right-wing friends.
Tech expert Eli Pariser calls these algorithms the "filter bubble," and its implications are pretty sinister. You've already seen this if you are a younger person continually embarrassed/frustrated by the idiotic Facebook hoaxes your older family members fall for. No, Uncle Frank, Obama did not ban the use of the phrase "Christmas tree" and didn't paint over an American flag with his own logo. How can he not recognize these as silly urban legends? Because everyone who would tell him so has been filtered out. Bad information can circulate forever in a bubble where everybody agrees with it.
"Standing in this room right now, I can just feel that 2012 is the mullet's year!"
After all, the same kid annoyed with Uncle Frank might in the next moment give a knee-jerk "Like" to a fake quote from Rick Santorum or Sarah Palin. And Facebook remembers, so the next link to come along that's popular with your political faction will get promoted right to the top. Your life becomes an endless stream of links telling you that everything you already believe is right, and there is no reason to ever question it. Your computer might as well have a mechanical arm that comes out and continually pats you on the back for being so awesome.
But you can still comment on other people's links, right, and set them straight? Not so fast -- users have reported seeing this after trying to comment on a friend's status:
"I really don't see how my balls aren't relevant to this!"
The comment in question wasn't inviting anyone to an underground Nazi get-together. But it did set off a spam filter, apparently because it was long and included three links. In other words, if you find yourself in a Facebook debate, the one thing that can get you filtered as spam is daring to give too much explanation or sources to back up what you're saying. It's probably best to just call everyone Nazis/communists and go on about your day.