Filter Bubbles, Google Ground Truth and Twitter EchoChambers

As the focus for this week’s episode [airs live Tues 21/6/11 at 19.32 UK time, or catch it via the podcast] in the OU co-produced season of programmes on openness with Click (radio), the BBC World Service radio programme formerly known as Digital Planet, we’re looking at one or two notions of diversity

If you’re a follower of pop technology, over the last week or two you will probably have already come across Eli Pariser’s new book, The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You, or his TED Talk on the subject:

Eli Pariser, :The Filter Bubble”, TED Talks

It could be argued that this is the Filter Bubble in action… how likely is it, for example, that a randomly selected person on the street would have heard of this book?

To support the programme, presenter Gareth Mitchell has been running an informal experiment on the programmes Facebook page: Help us with our web personalisation experiment!! The idea? To see what effect changing personalisation settings on Google has on a Google search for the word “Platform”. (You can see results of the experiment from Click listeners around the world on the Facebook group wall… Maybe you’d like to contribute too?)

It might surprise you to learn that Google results pages – even for the same search word – do not necessarily always give the same results, something I’ve jokingly referred to previously as “the end of Google Ground Truth”, but is there maybe a benefit to having very specifically focussed web searches (that is, very specific filter bubbles)? I think in certain circumstances there may well be…

Take education, or research, for example. Sometimes, we want to get the right answer to a particular question. In times gone by, we might have asked a librarian for help, if not to such a particular book or reference source, at least to help us find one that might be appropriate for our needs. Nowadays, it’s often easier to turn to a web search engine than it is to find a librarian, but there are risks in doing that: after all, no-one really knows what secret sauce is used in the Google search ranking algorithm that determines which results get placed where in response to a particular search request. The results we get may be diverse in the sense that they are ranked in part by the behaviour of millions of other search engine users, but from that diversity do we just get – noise?

As part of the web personalisation/search experiment, we found that for many people, the effects of changing personalisation settings had no noticeable effect on the first page of results returned for a search on the word “platform”. But for some people, there were differences… From my own experience of making dozens of technology (and Formula One!) related searches a day, the results I get back for those topics hen I’m logged in to Google are very different to when I have disabled the personalised reslults. As far as my job goes, I have a supercharged version of Google that is tuned to return particular sorts of results – code snippets, results from sources I trust, and so on. In certain respects, the filter bubble is akin to my own personal librarian. In this particular case, the filter bubble (I believe), works to my benefit.

Indeed, I’ve even wondered before whether a “trained” Google account might actually be a valuable commodity: Could Librarians Be Influential Friends? And Who Owns Your Search Persona?. Being able to be an effective searcher requires several skills, including the phrasing of the search query itself, the ability to skim results and look for signals that suggest a result is reliable, and the ability to refine queries. (For a quick – and free – mini-course on how to improve your searching, check out the OU Library’s Safari course.) But I think it will increasingly rely on personalisation features…which means you need to have some idea about how the personalisation works in order to make the most of its benefits and mitigate the risks.

To take a silly example: if Google search results are in part influenced by the links you or your friends share on Twitter, and you follow hundreds of spam accounts, you might rightly expect your Google results to be filled with spam (because your friends have recommended them, and you trust your friends, right? That’s one of the key principles of why social search is deemed to be attractive.)

As well as the content we discover through search engines, content discovered through social networks is becoming of increasing importance. Something I’ve been looking at for some time is the structure of social networks on Twitter, in part as a “self-reflection” tool to help us see where we might be situated in a professional social sense based on the people we follow and who follow us. Of course, this can sometimes lead to incestuous behaviour, where the only people talking about a subject are people who know each other.

For example, when I looked at the connection of people chatting on twitter about Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace documentary, I was surpised to see it defined a large part of the UK’s “technology scene” that I am familiar with from my own echochamber…

#awobmolg echochamber
#awobmolg echo chamber

So what do I mean by echochamber? In the case of Twitter, I take it to refer to a group of people chatting around a topic (as for example, identified by a hashtag) who are tightly connected in a social sense because they all follow one another anyway… (To see an example of this, for a previous OU/Click episode, I posted a simple application (it’s still there), to show the extent to which people who had recently used the #bbcClickRadio hashtag on Twitter were connected.)

As far as diversity goes, if you follow people who only follow each other, then it might be that the only ideas you come across are ideas that keep getting recycled by the same few people… Or it might be the case that a highly connected group of people shows a well defined special interest group on a particular topic….

To get a feel for what we can learn about our own filter bubbles in Twitterspace, I had a quick look at Gareth Mitchell’s context (@garethm on Twitter). One of the dangers of using public apps is that anyone can do this sort of analysis of course, but the ethics around my using Gareth as a guinea pig in this example is maybe the topic of another programme…!

So, to start with, let’s see how tightly connected Gareth’s Twitter friends are (that is, to what extent do the people Gareth follows on Twitter follow each other?):

@garethm Twitter friendsThe social graph showing how @garethm’s friends follow each other

The nodes represent people Gareth follows, and they have been organised into coloured groups based on a social network analysis measure that tries to identify groups of tightly interconnected individuals. The nodes are sized according to a metric known as “Authority”, which reflects the extent to which people are followed by other members of the network.

A crude first glance at the graph suggests a technology (purple) and science (fluorine-y yellowy green) cluster to me, but Gareth might be able to label those groups differently.

Something else I’ve started to explore is the extent to which other people might see us on Twitter. One way of doing this is to look at who follows you; another is to have a peek at what lists you’ve been included on, along with who else is on those lists. Here’s a snapshot of some of the lists (that actually have subscribers!) that Gareth is listed on:

@garethm listspace

The flowers are separate lists. People who are on several lists are caught on the spiderweb threads connecting the list flowers… In a sense, the lists are filter bubbles defined by other people into which Gareth has been placed. To the left in the image above, we see there are a few lists that appear to share quite a few members: convergent filters?!

In order to try to looking outside these filter bubbles, we can get an overview of the people that Gareth’s friends follow that Gareth doesn’t follow (these are the people Gareth is likely to encounter via retweets from his friends):

WHo @garethm's friends follow that he doesn't..
Who @garethm’s friends follow that @garethm doesn’t follow…

My original inspiration for this was to see whether or not this group of people would make sense as recommendations for who to follow, but if we look at the most highly followed people, we see this may not actually make sense (unless you want to follow celebrities!;-)

Recommnendations based on friends of @Garethm's friends
Popular friends of Gareth’s that he doesn’t follow…

By way of a passing observation, it’s also worth noting that the approach I have taken to constructing the “my friends friends who aren’t my friends” graph tends to place “me” at the centre of the universe, surrounded by folk who are a just a a friend of a friend away…

For extended interviews and additional material relating to the OU/Click series on openness, make sure you visit Click (#bbcClickRadio) on OpenLearn.

BBC Click Radio – SXSW Interview With Andrew Keen

Tomorrow (today??? Err, Tuesday…) sees (hears?! Err… airs) the next in the OU/BBC Click radio (ex-Digital Planet) co-produced season on “openness”.

Click (radio) (err, as was Digital Planet) now airs live and direct, comin’ atcha on Tuesday’s at, err, it’s not easy to find out from the programme page, is it??? Err, 19.32 (UK time???) on Tuesday (the science slot on World Service). (See the full upcoming schedule.)

Anyway, given all that confusion, why not take a break, sit back, and have a listen to this exclusive interview between Click’s Gareth Mitchell and Andrew Keen on “The Squeezed Midlist“.

And for more exclusive and extended interviews, check out the Information and Communication Technologies area on OpenLearn…

PS and for listeners of the BBC World Service Radio programme formally know as Digital Planet Click who are on Twitter, the hashtag is now #bbcClickRadio

Opening Up Digital Planet…

The second in the OU’s co-produced season of programmes with the BBC World Service Digital Planet radio programme is now available on the Digital Planet podcast feed, this week covering the topic of “Ownership and Openness” and featuring OU Senior Lecturer (and intellectual property geek;-) Ray Corrigan.

In the spirit of openness, wherever possible we’re trying to open up access to full length versions of the interviews used in the programme on the OpenLearn website. So for example, if you want to hear fuller length interviews recorded from Brazil’s Campus Party, as covered in the opening episode of the openness series, you can find them here: Campus Party Brasil 2011 – The Digital Planet Interviews.

Interviewees include Jon “Maddog” Hall on Free as in Freedom, not as in price and Sir Tim Berners Lee on net neutrality, opening up data, why open data is important and on WIkileaks.

The OpenLearn site also hosts a recording of Al Gore’s Campus Party 2011 Keynote which I don’t think received an airing on either Digital Planet, or Digital Planet’s sister World Service TV programme, Click?

And as if that’s not enough, the audio clips have been made available as MP3 files, which means you can download them to your own device, or embed them in your own web pages… Like this:

Sir Tim Berners Lee on why open data is important:

If you can think of any other ways we can open up the programmes, please let us know:-)

To keep up-to-date with the OU Digital Planet extras, keep your eye on the OpenLearn Digital Planet profile page, or even better, subscribe to the OpenLearn/Digital Planet RSS feed:-)

Openness on Digital Planet…

What makes for an open platform, and how can you apparently shut part of the internet down – such as Egypt, for example – without breaking it for everyone?

These were two issues that came up in this week’s episode of Digital Planet, from the BBC World Service. As we’ve done a couple of times before, the Open University has joined with forces with the BBC World Service to co-produce another six episodes of the weekly technology magazine programme Digital Planet (/programme page) over the next six months around the general theme of openness.

We’ve got all sorts of things we’d like to try out over the next six months. perhaps even a Digital Planet android app to go with the Digital Planet ringtone we released in an episode from a previous run, the next best font after Comic Sans, Gareth New Roman or the Digital Planet Listeners’ Map (have you added yourself yet?)!

We also intend to support the programme with regular blog posts around the stories that we’ve featured on Digital Planet, as well as ideas for future stories. To start the ball rolling, have you ever wondered What makes for an open platform? (Did you know that IBM originally intended to keep control over the IBM PC platform, and one trick they used was to make the bit they wanted to keep under control public?!)

We also hope to get a few OU voices on the programme… Despite regularly blogging and tweeting, as well as speaking at conferences and workshops, I’ve never really been one for speaking “on-the record”, partly out of fear that I have a face for radio and a voice for mime; but as needs must, I took a speaking role on the first episode in the series and was thankful it wasn’t as terrifying as I’d expected! (Brian Kelly’s notes on ‘how to cope a radio interview’ served me well, I think, as did the friendly faces of presenter Gareth Mitchell, producer Cathy Edwards and OU colleague David Chapman!) The programme will stay “live” on the Digital Planet podcast feed for another three or four days (I think the run of radio broadcasts has finished now?) if you haven’t subscribed yet;-)

You can also listen again to a recording of the whole programme here: Digital Planet/OU special – Introducing Openness

A Week on the Digital Planet…

Followers of my twitterstream (@psychemedia may have picked up on the fact that this week’s episode of the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet was also our second co-produced episode of this weekly series (the first being a geo-web special earlier this year).

As with other OU/BBC co-pros, we at the OU get to comment on various aspects of the pre-production of the programme (helping identify possibly story packages, and identifying key themes) as well as commenting on draft scripts. (If you follow presenter Gareth Mitchell’s tweets (@garethm), you’ll know that happens over the weekend before the Monday afternoon recording of the programme (as well as Monday morning itself!)

Unlike most other co-pros, though, we wanted our relationship with the Digital Planet team to extend onto the web, providing a supporting package around the programme, as well as a legacy (Digital Planet programmes are available for at least 7 days after transmission as a podcast, but unlike many BBC (rather than BBC World Service) programmes, a public archive of previous programmes is not available.

We also wanted to try to come up with content that could engage Digital Planet’s international audience in an interactive way. So for example, we provided the Digital Planet listeners’ map to support the geo special, to allow listerners to place a marker to show where they’re listening from:

…as well as how they’re listening:

How people listen to Digital Planet

(Note to self – if we can get a live feed of marker locations and comments, we can maybe post some live mashups…;-)

For more on the first episode, and the listeners’ map, check out Exploring the GeoWeb with Digital Planet.

So, what have we done for the second special? Well the theme this time was “DIY Technology”, with packages from the recent Maker Faire in Newcastle, the story of Microsoft’s Photosynth (did you know there’s an unofficial but accepted iPhone version?!), and a feature all about the fascinating world of font design (the programme will be around for a day or two yet via the podcast feed – you can reach it from the Digital Planet pages).

Partly because ace developer Simon Budgen managed to pull so many things together, we’ve actually got a mini-site for the supporting materials for this episode – Digital Planet DIY Technology Special, on – so what will you find there?

First up, on something font-tastic, there’s an opportunity to see the font Gareth made from his own handwriting – Gareth New Roman – as well as a download link for th font. If you think you can do better, there are links to some online tools to get you started designing your own font.

Secondly, there’s our Digital Planet – Photosynth page, which contains a link to a Photosynth of the studio using photos taken during the recording of the programme, (unfortunately, we couldn’t embed the Silverlight version of the player in the page because BBC Future Media Standards and Guidelines prevent it:-(

The page also includes a clip from the programme that I topped and tailed with a biddly-dee biddly-dee bong, a programme intro, and a closing credit, which had been on my “things we need to demonstrate” list for ages. (There’s a rights story behind that clip too, that I’ll maybe tell one day…;-)

The third (count ’em) page we got up wrapped the Maker Faire package (Digital Planet at the Maker Faire). Rather than embedding another audio clip taken from the programme, this page actually embeds (using the embed code anyone can use) a BBC video report from the Faire:

BAs if that wasnlt enough, the page actually embeds a couple of other things too – firstly , an image feed pulling appropriately tagged images in from Flickr:

(Note the reactive/responsive moderation policy we have in place…)

..and also some Youtube videos that describe how to make some “LED Throwies” that were featured in the Maker Faire package:

So that’s the ‘official’ mini-site. But there’s more…

Over on the Open2 Science and Technology blog, I posted an article about Arduino, a simple electronics development board – ideal for tinkering with. And embedded in that post, another clip from Digital Planet (without the top and tailing credits this time – just a simple cut from the programme):

Just by the by, there are a couple of other things to note about the blog post: first, the embedded image is one we grabbed from Wikipedia; and secondly, we managed to sneak a tease for a forthcoming OU course in there…

So that’s it, right? Well, not quite – over on Platform, the OU’s social site that’s open to anyone (not just members of the OU family), there’s another blog post – reinforcing the font package and mixing in a couple more font related things for people to do. (Note that the Platform post is not linked to from the open2 pages (the open2 blog post is) – it’s there solely as another entry point to the open2 pages.

And finally, just for the record, here’s a note on schedules… I started chatting to the BBC production team about four weeks ago, bouncing around ideas for the programme. A couple of phone calls and a couple of email exchanges firmed things up, and then I got copies of the pre-recorded packages last Friday. Gareth circulated a draft studio script on Saturday, and I sent it back with comments Sunday. Another draft arrived Monday morning, (along with a chaser phone call!), and I sent final comments back before the mid-afternoon recording. Gareth sent a copy of his font to Simon on Sunday (Monday?) and the site went up in draft form (no mini-site at that point) on Monday. Gareth uploaded the studio photos to flickr and let us have them Monday, and on Monday evening I pulled them into a Photosynth that was linked to on the Tuesday. The Platform post appeared Wednesady and the embedded audio clips, Sci/Tech blog and mini-site navigation were in place today (Thursday), having been edited on Tuesday and Wednesday (using Audacity, as it happens…).

Huge thanks to the DP production team (Angela Sain, Rami Tzabar, Michelle Martin) and of course Gareth and billt, and esp. Simon B for pulling the open2 site together so reactively:-)

As ever, great fun… and a wonderful production schedule to work to!

Exploring the GeoWeb with Digital Planet

Followers of the OU’s new release feed (or my Twitter feed;-) probably know that The Open University and Digital Planet have joined forces to produce a series of specials (one every two months or so) over the coming year.

The first special, on the geo-web, those bits of the web that provide an intersection between digital and physical space, aired last Tuesday; (there’s a brief pre-emptive write up on Platform: Taking the travel bug to Nepal with Digital Planet).

If you haven’t listed to it yet, it’s available for one day more from the BBC World Service Digital Planet webpage – so if you hurry, you’ll still be able to download (or stream) a copy…

(Digital Planet actually goes out weekly, so you can also find a podcast feed for the series there…)

The topics covered in the programme included a feature on location awareness and Streetview integration from Google’s mobile mapping division, which taught me something new – Streetview’s crazy use of compass and accelerometer data!

The programme also contained some good discussion on privacy issues and a package on geocaching, featuring the OU’s very own Gill Clough, who you can see chatting to Digital World presenter Gareth Mitchell (with producer Pam Rutherford in the background!) here: The OU and Digital Planet: Gareth and Gill Go Geocaching (*video exclusive*).

Now if only they’d got Bill Thompson traipsing around in the mud, rather than sitting comfortably in the studio, too…;-)

As the OU’s academic contact on the episode, I got to bounce ideas around with the producer and presenter in the couple of weeks before the programme aired, as well as casting an eye over a draft of the script during the weekend before the Monday afternoon recording.

I’ve also been working sideways, as it were, with the producers of the Open2 website that supports the programme: Digital Planet on

One of the things we wanted to start exploring with the website was how we might start to engage with Digital Planet’s global audience.

And our first offering is: the interactive Open2 Digital Planet listeners’ map, which allows listeners to add a marker to the map showing where in the world they listen to the programme from…

Along with placing a marker, listeners can also tell us how they listen to the programme, and link to a photo of themselves if they wish:

As we’re running a lazy, userflagging moderation system, links are added to user marker bubbles to report content, if necessary…

You might also have noticed a Twitter feed – this is currently aggregating tweets tagged with #digitalplanet, and we’ll hopefully find some novel ways of using it – and appropriately licensed photos tagged digitalplanet on flickr – to support future programmes…

And finally – one package that aired that I haven’t mentioned yet was all about some travel bugs that are making their way to Nepal (Geocaching schools project: travel bugs to Nepal)… With a bit of luck, I intend to get a post up about that on the Science and Technology blog over the next week or so… and maybe even travel bug tracking map on the Digital Planet site (if we can get a feed from, that is…)?! :-)