If you get all your news here, you may be living in a bubble

social media information bubbles - bigger bubbles mean a less balanced point of view
Promo image Dimitar Nikolov, et. al., Indiana U. (TH icon added by author)

We're all friends here, right? So I can talk honestly?

I'm not telling you anything you don't know if I mention that most of the news you find here at TreeHugger emanates a tree-huggy vibe. Maybe that's why you come here: to reinforce your expertise, to learn new tricks you want to use in your life, to find out what's happening in an area of interest to you.

One could hope that the huge proliferation of news sources extends our access to diverse viewpoints. You could click to over 3500 news outlets from your chair, and share views with your friends all over the globe; compare that to your grandpa reading the local newspaper and yakking with his friends at the local diner.

But is that expanding your worldview? Broadening your opinions? A recent study by Indiana University researchers suggests otherwise. They mined a massive set of data about online behavior to show that access to information via social media exposes people to a narrower range of information sources than the not-quite-as-old-as-grandpa habit of using search engines to find stories of interest.

The study, Measuring online social bubbles, peered into anonymous data from 100,000 users over 3 and a half years -- a dataset that includes 18 million clicks on AOL search, and 1.3 billion tweets shared by over 89 million people.

Their data demonstrates that accessing information via social media exposed people to more of the same sources and fewer overall sources. Although most of the data demonstrates only a collective social bubble effect, the researchers used a couple of smaller data sets in which the clicks could be associated to individuals to suggest that the behavior found in the collective analysis parallels the behavior in the smaller sets quite well -- the individual is most likely experiencing the bubble effect that the larger dataset portrays.

What is the take away message? It is still not possible to know if we are better or worse prepared for civic discourse than our grandparents -- but behavior in Congress, where the art of reaching across the aisle seems altogether lost, and recent news highlighting the struggles we still face with diversity in the world reinforce a sense that the balanced viewpoint is a thing of the past.

There is no fighting the current of a trend as strong as the online network, but perhaps we need to introduce a new spin. Could social media introduce something like the "I'm feeling lucky" button on google? But in fact, things will probably continue deeper into the narrows, as the web gets smarter about what we clicked in the past and tries to deliver more of the same.

Maybe our only chance is to go seek diversity on purpose. I think I'll go google something new. (And if you are checking in here to step out of your own silo, try to leave nice comments -- think civil exchange, not 'let's go trolling!')

If you get all your news here, you may be living in a bubble
We're all friends here, right? So I can talk honestly?

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