As Americans increasingly live their lives online, they risk encountering people they disagree with less than ever. Digital lives are circumscribed by algorithms and social media networks that create separate but homogenous red or blue realities. Filter bubbles are a problem technology didn’t create but certainly seems to exacerbate.
Now, technologists are trying to use software to burst those same bubbles.
Since Donald Trump’s victory, a handful of engineers have turned to code in hopes of turning the United States purple. They’ve built apps, extensions, and sites that aim to unite Americans’ separate realities.
One of the simplest of these tools is a Chrome extension called EscapeYourBubble, developed by New York engineer and entrepreneur Krishna Kaliannan. Himself a liberal, Kaliannan was shocked last week. His echo chamber had told him Hillary Clinton was sure to win. He wondered if he could override his Facebook News Feed to inject it with articles from the other side.
EscapeYourBubble asks you who you want to know more about, Republicans or Democrats. Pick the side outside your bubble, and the extension will overlay a news article from that “other” viewpoint into your News Feed once per visit to Facebook. How that works in practice winds up being pretty subjective, since Kaliannan himself is handpicking the stories. When I tried it, I said I wanted to learn more about Republicans, and the extension sent me to a Huffington Post article, “Why the Disdain for American Blue-Collar Workers?” Kaliannan’s idea isn’t necessarily to connect you directly with people who disagree with you, but rather to show you stories to help you understand who those people are.
Kaliannan chose to focus on Facebook because he believes the News Feed has encouraged a clickbait culture of journalism that rewards eyeballs over integrity. He’s hardly alone. Many critics have called out Facebook for its outsize influence on the presidential election, from the proliferation of fake news articles and hate speech to its algorithmic siloing of users. (Facebook did not reply to a request for comment.)
In hopes of holding Facebook more accountable, Kaliannan is keeping track of which articles EscapeYourBubble serves to whom and whether people click them. He eventually hopes to use the extension to track a user’s entire range of activity on Facebook, just like Facebook does. He’s frustrated by the opacity of Facebook’s process for determining what users see in their News Feed; in an ideal world, he says, he’ll be able to gather enough data from users of the extension to gain his own insight into Facebook’s algorithms and how they funnel certain stories to certain people.
While EscapeYourBubble seeks to expose you to different viewpoints, Harvard Business School student Henry Tsai has built a site that seeks to connect you with the people who actually hold those views. Limiting yourself to ideas and opinions with which you agree isn’t just a function of the news you consume; the filter bubble is also a function of social networks that don’t extend beyond ideologically likeminded friends. The day after the election, Tsai wanted to talk to someone who had voted for Trump to understand where they were coming from. But he didn’t know any Trump voters. So he posted a Google Form asking to be put in touch with a Trump supporter who wanted to chat.
Can feel-good tech dashed together after Trump’s victory be more than a salve for Silicon Valley’s guilt?
The form went viral, and on Friday night he enlisted the help of Yasyf Mohamedali, a computer science student at MIT, to help him build HiFromTheOtherSide, a site to match people with someone with an opposing point of view. (He admits that right now he has more liberals signing up.)
“I got an email late last night from two people I matched. The only time they could find to talk was at midnight,” Tsai says. “They met up at a burger joint at midnight and they talked for an hour and a half. It was really heartening.”
Though Mohamedali is working on algorithmic matching method, for now Tsai is matching people manually. He then emails both parties with an introduction and leaves it up to the pair to set up a phone call, video chat, or in-person meeting. (At the time of this writing, my match had yet to respond to my request for a get-together.)
Other examples of technologists trying to unite the two Americas include Unfiltered.news, a data visualization developed by Google’s do-gooder think tank Jigsaw to reveal biases in what gets national news attention; a news app called Discors seeks to show you both of sides of the media conversation; and the Echo Chamber Club, a weekly newsletter aimed at exposing “liberal and metropolitan progressives” to different points of view.
More such efforts are sure to come: popping the filter bubble is an idea that feels more imperative than ever. But the notion that a few lines of code and some good intentions can undo the damage of algorithmic sorting may seem naive. Can feel-good tech dashed together after Trump’s victory be more than a salve for Silicon Valley’s guilt? Or a way for liberal techies to feel like at least they are trying? Maybe tech isn’t the answer for a problem tech helped get the country into. Then again, maybe when my match from HiFromtheOtherSide calls, we’ll find we can get along after all.