POLL: Would you read a weekly email that challenges your beliefs? | MIT Center for Civic Media

POLL: Would you read a weekly email that challenges your beliefs?

The product: You take a basic quiz to see where you fall on the spectrum of ideologies. Then, once a week, you get an email featuring a carefully selected reading or video that may challenge your political beliefs, but is otherwise intelligent and thought-provoking.

Would you sign up for such a service?

The inspiration:
In The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser warns that internet companies are personalizing our online experiences so effectively that we risk surrounding ourselves with nothing but digital yes-men. The result, paired with cable news stations that only need to appeal to the partisan extremes, is a customized echo chamber that endangers democracy. You've seen this argument before.

Eli provides some tips on beating the algorithms at their game, but these are limited technical solutions in the face of the powerful-but-invisible forces of personalization he describes. We also see an argument for a return to human editors. Eli notes in his TED talk, "The algorithms don't yet have the kind of embedded ethics that the human editors did." We need to be served content that is not just relevant, he says, but also important, uncomfortable, challenging.

Maybe what we really need are better serendipity engines. StumbleUpon grew immensely popular because it brought back the the web's original sense of excitement and exploration at a time when the internet was becoming more mature and commercialized. I'll argue not only that being exposed to new influences is healthy for our minds, but also that there's already high demand for it.

I'm an information addict, like most of the internet's early adopters and Twitter's heavy users. I'd tell you I don't own a TV, but I don't want you to hate me (plus, I cheat and watch Hulu). So, I'm keenly aware that I don't fit into the media consumption patterns of the general population.

All of the network analyses I've read describe the internet, blogs, and Twitter as places where practically everyone links to the same few voices, and where we all hear only what they already believed. Statistically, power laws make sense. But the end result doesn't jive with my experience. No, I don't start every morning with Fox News or Alternet just to be different. But over time, getting my news and political opinions from the web for the last 15 years has endlessly broadened my perspective, exposed me to new sources, and yes, influenced my beliefs with thoughtbombs I never would have otherwise come across. This effect is all the more exaggerated when I compare what my media diet would look like if that time had been replaced by televised news, and the ridiculous caricatures of political identity portrayed there.

Of course, what we believe politically may have significantly more to do with our individual lives and the experiences we've had than the articles we read. But I'd like to test a few things. I'd like to see if there is genuine interest in considering (intelligent) voices that don't echo our own. And I'd like to see what people do with such influences, which can only happen once you tell me if you're interested.

Comments

Comment: 

I meant to give a shout out to another curated content experience that proved some pundits wrong: Longreads. It regularly destroys the argument that people who use Twitter have no attention span.

Comment: 

Not sure if Longreads and Longform are associated, but: http://longform.org/

Love this idea, by the way. Looking forward to seeing how you put it together. Also looking forward to see how long I can subscribe before my blood pressure forces me to quit.

Comment: 

Nice! I had forgotten about Longform.

I'd love your input along the way. Ideally we'll be able to surface legitimately intelligent and/or compelling pieces that won't inspire you to throw your laptop across the room.

Comment: 

I watched Eli Pariser's TedTalk and agree that the Filter Bubble is pretty frightening (it reminds me of the Marxist theories about oppression you aren't aware of). However, once a week is pretty frequent for an email with a bunch of readings, especially since most people are pretty busy (jobs, school!, etc). This is probably harder, but I think a "reverse filter" would be something I'd actually use - a search engine add-on that I could use whenever I used Google (or whatever). So the search would return the regular results, but somewhere near the top it would also return a few "opposite" results, which I could then follow or search if interested. Then I wouldn't feel guilty for ignoring an email (that would be good for me to read/ that I should read) every week, and if I had some spare time or saw something particularly interesting I could quickly follow up on it...

Comment: 

Yeah...there are the problems we know, the problems we don't know, and the problems we don't know we don't know!

I'm thinking the weekly email would just be one compelling article, video, or other piece of media, delivered on the weekend. I'd be willing to adjust up or down, though, depending on demand and performance.

You make a really good point that we need more than a weekly email. I'd be interested in a whole suite of serendipitous tools. No joke: MC Hammer is launching a search engine sort of like the one you just described: news.cnet.com/8301-17852_3-20122828-71/mc-hammer-launches-legit-search-engine/

Comment: 

this idea is really great. I guess my only worry would be on determining what is an "opposite" ideology or political view to another one (maybe each question in your survey could trigger several divergent views?), and what the limits of the debate would be. So what would the range of views be (only Democrat/Republican), or what conditions would there need to be? It would be cool if you could have several people (maybe a minimum of three for each view?) to curate different existing web sources that you could tap in. The other thing that would be cool, following the discussion of moving this beyond e-mail is having something like the My AOL thing, a personalized page with opposite views from yours.

Comment: 

Ooh, I like that. Mike Norman suggested a similar site - a place you can go and see the various viewpoints of an issue summarized. Kind of like The Week, but for every issue in the news.

I'm going to have to recruit some volunteer curators (know any?), or perhaps just use a tool like Summify and train it on a corpus of tweeters for each major ideology.

I'm not too worried about trying to get 100% opposite ideologies or sticking to a Democrat vs. Republican spectrum. Most of the political quizzes I've seen use a graph with quadrants to show a full spectrum of beliefs, and the goal would be to deliver intelligent arguments that are outside of your regular patterns, regardless of which relative direction the arguments are from your own.

Comment: 

I am very excited about your project Matt--I immediately signed up and I look forward to receiving news updates via email soon! I, too am a news-junkie and cannot imagine where I would be without the internet as my #1 news source. This is a very creative idea to expand upon what the internet can do for us in expanding our knowledge.

Yet I agree with the suggestion about the amount of reading provided in each email. Maybe you could have a general word limit that you want to shoot for and similar limits for video and other media. You make a good point about increasing and decreasing based on demand.

Another question to consider is: is this purely political? Or can you explore other beliefs regarding religion, lifestyle, cultures? And since people will be interested in a variety of topics, how will you cater your project to provide opposing views for each person?

Comment: 

Thanks Hailey! I would definitely like to keep the amount of reading / watching manageable, especially as people are consuming something they don't necessarily agree with. If individuals want lots more, there could be a path to more.

For Phase I, I'm only tackling major (and popular) political beliefs. It'd be really interesting down the road to find a way to expose people to new forms of religion, lifestyle, culture, etc. Let me know if you think of any good ways to do this, either on the side of profiling people's current beliefs or on the supply side of providing fresh perspectives.