Reddit may be the front page of the internet for millions of people, but each one of them sees it through their own prism. Each logged-in member of Reddit’s 234 million monthly unique visitors sees an ideologically consistent vision of the world around them. A site which should broaden horizons often does the opposite, as users retreat into the tribal, ideological comfort zone of their own customised homepage. This is what’s known as a filter bubble.
The question of how to fix such a filter bubble is a complex one, which is why Alex Duckmanton’s new iPhone app – Burst – is so intriguing, presenting what appears to be an ingeniously simple suggestion.
While most third-party Reddit apps ape the site’s own design, on Burst a link’s comments are mixed up, showing you reactions from every subreddit it appears on: if you’re Labour through and through, you’re going to hear from Tories. If you’re a Republican, you’re going to hear Democrats’ two cents. “It’s my hope that this will help tone down some of the more toxic aspects of political discussion online,” Duckerman says.
Seamlessly introducing dissenting voices is a difficult art, and involved some trial and error. Because Duckerman wanted to maintain the user/subreddit connection, he was wary of overloading users with new voices. In the end, he settled on a system that blends Reddit’s own methodology with a managed introduction of outside views: “If you’re seeing a post because you’re subscribed to subreddit A, and there are duplicate posts on subreddits B, C, and D (and assuming B, C, and D are in order of highest to lowest score), you’d see comments in the order: A, A, B, A, C, A, D, A, B, A, C, A, D, A. I tried a few different methods to mix the comments, but this had a nice combination of predictability and variety.”
It’s a noble aim, but there’s one tiny problem. A news story will be reported by multiple outlets, each of which is likely to have a different political spin. If you’re pulling together comments on, say, a CNN article, won’t they still ultimately reflect similar sentiments – even if they are coming from diverse subreddits? If conservative and liberal subreddits aren’t sharing the same link, then aren’t you just left with a marginally less echoey echo chamber? And worse – one that lulls users into believing they’re getting a balanced snapshot of wider opinion.
Duckerman concedes there’s an element of this, but contends that diametrically opposed groups do still leave their comfort zone – even if it’s just to pick holes in others’ political arguments. “I’ve found that ‘opposite’ subreddits like r/liberal and r/conservative will often still post the same link, with one community talking about how great something is, and the other talking about how outrageous it is,” he says. “I’ve thought about ways to introduce alternate articles where relevant, but that’s still one for the backlog at the moment.” Understandable really – if a highly resourced company like YouTube only has a very weak algorithmic answer to this problem, then it’s fair to cut a one-man app a little slack.
Unlike me, Duckerman is pretty generous to YouTube’s stance, arguing that multiple solutions will be required to fix our online discourse: “I think it’s a step in the right direction,” he says, when I bring it up. “The old-school approach of banning problem users and removing bad content isn’t scalable and won’t ever be able to keep up with the constant influx of new content.
“I think the key is to find the right balance of exposing people to these viewpoints often enough, without crossing the line of making them feel like they’re being spoken down to or being backed into a corner.”
Keeping biases in check
On that note, has Duckerman made any judgement calls on subreddits that shouldn’t be part of the comments section? Far right and far left groups could, by definition, distort the comments threads in their own way, after all. “Right now I’m putting my trust in Reddit to police the more extreme subreddits,” he says. “There are plenty of people who don’t think that’s working, but I don’t think I’m personally qualified to make the right determination in cases where things aren’t clear-cut. If I were to start implementing whitelists or blacklists, I’d want the decision of what is and isn’t acceptable to be determined by an independent body.”
That’s an admirable approach – after all, there’s nothing more likely to put partisan types off a balancing app than hearing it includes the developers’ own implicit biases. But even without this information, has he seen any comments from outside his comfort zone that have changed his outlook? “I can’t think of a particular view that’s been changed, but I definitely feel like I’m in a better position to engage with people I don’t agree with,” he replies.
“Seeing differing opinions helps me to understand why people believe the things they do. When I don’t agree, I can at least empathise and use that as a basis for a conversation. “
I personally hope the idea catches on – and not just for Reddit. There’s clearly scope for Burst – or something like it – anywhere where people gather to vent their spleen on the internet. “Long-term that’s definitely a possibility. I could imagine a Burst for Twitter given how important it’s become as a tool for news agencies and politicians,” he says.
“I don’t think the issue of filter bubbles can be solved by people taking action on their own – products need to change so that their design fundamentally prevents filter bubbles from existing.” At the risk of ending this article with a filter bubble of my own, he’ll find no argument from me.
You can download Burst for iOS here. A “slightly tweaked” Android version is coming soon