Oct 2012


Have you seen Eli Pariser’s fascinating TED video on “Filter Bubbles” or read his book by the same name? It was launched somewhere in early 2011 and his premise is that “As web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, there’s a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a “filter bubble” and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview.” He goes on to argue that “Your filter bubble is your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But you don’t decide what gets in — and more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out.” 

His 9 minute video that has been watched nearly 1.9 million times criticizes the “invisible algorithmic edit of the web” carried out by Facebook’s Newsfeed and Google’s PageRank systems. While the “filter bubble” philosophy seems very relevant to me, its consequences are debatable since one would argue that the objective of filtering is to provide the most relevant, personalized content or perspective over time and that there are always options available for end users to tweak the filters by providing active or passive signals to the platform (for instance you can “Hide” a Facebook friend’s wall post which would indicate to the Facebook Edgerank system that you don’t particularly like that piece of content and the system will learn and adapt itself based on such signals).

While Facebook, Google, HuffPo, NYTimes, WashingtonPost and Yahoo News bore much of the “filter bubble” criticism in Pariser’s thesis last year, looks like LinkedIn has joined in the “filter bubble” bandwagon given the release of two of its latest features – Endorsements & their new Feed.
(Mind you I am an avid LinkedIn user and a big fan and love some of the other recent launches such as the new Company page, Video self-serve ads, their new design be it on the web or the iPad application itself)

LinkedIn’s new Feed is unstructured, irrelevant and hence it makes the experience dreadful.

Let me address my gripes with each of the features individually and then share my collective perspective. When I log into LinkedIn each morning, the feature that I value most are the news headlines it provides me under the “LinkedIn Today” segment, based on the industry categories I have subscribed to. This feature became even more interesting with LinkedIn’s new interface where it helped me prioritize the 3 or 4 highlighted news items through “TED like” tiled squares. But thereafter I dread to scroll further to the second fold of the screen. There are specifically 3 peeves that add to the irritation – I get to see status updates from 2nd degree connections, I get to see endorsements made by 2nd degree connections, there is an avalanche of updates from just a few of my connections and the entire layout (unlike LinkedIn Today) seems unstructured and haphazard – I wish there was better segregation between status updates, Company Page & Group Follows, Job Opportunities and Thought Leader Subscriptions.

I spent a good 2 hours last weekend trying to provide active & passive signals to LinkedIn about my preferences and what I like and dislike but it hasn’t worked its magic yet and I still lay inside a “filter bubble” where in I have very little control of what I see and consume. Now I doubt that most of the 175 million LinkedIn users would have the patience, ability or interest to spend 2 quality weekend hours to simply get LinkedIn to learn & adapt. The feeds have to be smarter and more relevant than that.

I think LinkedIn should offer active prompts to users every time they launch a new feature/segment, to allow users to customize their feed preferences and make them relevant. And more importantly it is about time their feed design incorporates better segmentation of the different kinds of information and data that constitute the feed.

Why I dont “Endorse” LinkedIn’s Endorsement?

I love LinkedIn’s public recommendation feature – in fact I believe that it is one of their key USPs which will someday make resumes a thing of the past. A public recommendation on LinkedIn, no matter how reciprocal in nature, has much higher value and credibility than a resume proclaiming that its signatory is the best candidate for the job at hand. Now the same logic must apply to LinkedIn Endorsements as well right? Philosophically yes it has credibility but at the practical level, not really!

Recommendations require a connection to think through and write a well crafted, substantial qualitative testimonial (since that connections credibility is at stake as well) but Endorsement provides an opportunity to “give kudos at a click”. Now while it makes the process easier, simpler and faster, this very reason lowers it’s value, especially since it does not provide a meaningful, qualitative assessment of how good is an individual at a particular skill set.

Now I have been fortunate to receive 9 endorsements for possessing a skill labeled as “Digital Marketing” – now while it may fuel and satiate my ego, I am not sure how purposeful and valuable that piece of data would be to a potential headhunter, recruiter or a client since the skill itself is not well classified and more importantly, a single-click based endorsement does not highlight my depth of understanding or my capability level for the associated skill set.

As highlighted earlier, what is more irritating is that not only do I see loads of endorsements updates each day on my feed (and it isn’t memorable or valuable since there are too many people being endorsed for too many skill sets by too many people) but also there are endorsements from 2nd degree connections who I dont know or care about. So unless there is a more qualitative Endorsement feature available for premium users, the only purpose it solves is to increase Page Views for LinkedIn and hence more eyeballs for advertisers. While that maybe good monetization for LinkedIn, I am not sure I would like to see LinkedIn tread that path risking its relevance and credibility.

Before the “filter bubble” expands and explodes, it is vital for these social platforms to make their feeds and content systems smarter. They need to provide easier ways for users to actively provide signals and feedback to design their own frames and prisms that determine what they see and eventually choose to consume. The control must lay in the user’s hand and the market in general must be allowed to self-regulate the feeds to ensure that these social networks strike a good balance between content filtering, user privacy and monetization.

If I don’t make my millions from Happy Marketer, personal and professional “feed consulting” is what I will venture into next;)

Prantik Mazumdar

Prantik is a Managing Partner at Happy Marketer, who leads the firm’s Social, Mobile & Display Advertising practice. He sits on the Global Digital Board of Time International, a leading luxury chain in Asia.