Entrepreneur Educator, Program Developer, Facilitator

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Beware Filter Bubbles

Last year, I visited India last year to help founders in the Startup Nexus program. Below is a story from that trip that offers a strategy for navigating our algorithmically-complicated lives.

Alan and I in front of a statue of the monkey god Hanuman. Delhi, India.

The tuk tuk rides, the buzzing energy of nonstop traffic, and the spicy street food of India. Delhi was a city with the volume turned up to 11, and my friend Alan and I were loving it. And then something weird happened.

It was Tuesday, our first free night now that the purpose of the visit—running a startup accelerator—was running smoothly. I was starving. Googling “Local Delhi restaurants” pointed me to Tripadvisor, where I started poring over reviews. After ten minutes of research, I had a decent enough list of promising places.

Tripadvisor, which I tried out because Google maps wasn’t doing it for me.

We hopped in a tuk tuk. The first restaurant on my list was in a hotel. Not the best sign, but ok. We walked through the gated entrance where just outside the main building was a sign with the logos of the restaurants inside.

Five logos.

They looked…familiar. They were the exact five restaurants that Tripadvisor had listed as the best places in our neighborhoodThat’s when Alan and I both started to feel a little fishy. What are the chances that the five best restaurants in this neighborhood—a neighborhood overflowing with restaurants—all just happen to be in this hotel?

“We might as well give it a shot,” I said, and we walked into the restaurant at the top of our list. It seemed…fine. Certainly not the same spirit of the places with local flavor we had dined in earlier that week, but decent enough. One of the twenty waiters—in India, it is not uncommon for the staff to outnumber the customers—brought us a menu.

A Corona was 750 rupees, which is about nine dollars. Nine dollars for a beer in India is absolutely insane. This was confirmation that we were in an overly sanitized tourist trap devoid of the type of local experience we were after.

So we took to the streets, heading towards bustling storefronts down the road. We asked a random pony-tailed gent for recommendations, and ended up having a lovely meal at a restaurant called Hotel Saravana Bhavan. (Ironically, not a hotel but a chain restaurant…that happened to have a location in Houston just a couple of hours away from me back home in Austin).

Yet this meal was everything we were after: spicy, flavorful, satisfying. I ate a Dosa that was as bigger than my head and loved every bite.


Filter bubbles and how to escape them

Getting manipulated by Tripadvisor caught me off guard. I’m an educated, internet-savvy person. I’ve known about filter bubbles for a decade plus. A filter bubble is the term to describe the tunnel vision that occurs when review sites, personalized search engines, and social platforms manipulate the results served to you. Sometimes it’s because of the algorithms that power these sites. Other times, it’s because of the business model, e.g. Tripadvisor obfuscating organic vs paid recommendations.

There are probably 20x more restaurants in our neighborhood than what this Google map search reveals

What annoyed me about this experience was that if I, a sophisticated user of the internet, was getting baited by this stuff, what about the people who don’t have the bandwidth to keep this perspective top of mind?

The answer: talk to humans

I’m an optimist, so I believe that in the long run, the arms race that is the attention economy will eventually resolve itself. The evolution of technology swinging back and forth in favor of individuals and governmental/business entities is nothing new. Youtube throwing more ads at people will only lead to more people creating better adblockers. Spam getting worse will only lead to better spam filtering.

But in the short run, one workaround is to do what we did: talk to other human beings. Not on forums, Facebook, or Twitter. Do it in the oldest medium possible: face-to-face conversation.

I remember walking out of that hotel and chatting up that pony-tailed passerby who was more than happy to help two foreigners find a good meal. Someone like that will steer you better than a publicly-traded review site every day of the week.

More than finding a good restaurant

There is another upside to talking to strangers, something I do all the time now. Whether it’s the barista, the uber driver, or the old man on the park bench, striking up a conversation with random people provides a sense of connection that the internet—a structure literally built for creating connection—often fails to achieve. I’ve had exchanges with TSA agents, bus passengers, and bartenders that gave me glimpses into worlds I knew nothing about.

I wish you luck on finding the good things in life. Remember: talking to other humans might be the best way to do just that.

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Thanks to early readers: Michelle V, John Min