In Lewis Carroll’s fantastical tale Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, the eponymous heroine discovers a very different world on the other side of a mirror, occupied by people and creatures she never imagined could exist.
Yet, were we to look into the same looking glass, we would see ourselves reflected. Any different realities, ideas, and viewpoints of another world would remain out of view.
Welcome to the world of social media filter bubbles — where what you see is very definitely NOT what you get.
“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”
I can’t trust my social media feeds anymore. My various streams, timelines, and news feeds made it easy to believe it was impossible that the United Kingdom would vote to leave the European Union; that Australia would re-elect the Liberal government; and that Donald Trump would become the Republican nominee.
In reality, the EU referendum was decided by a very narrow margin, reflecting a far more polarized and divided country than most people realized. Meanwhile, the Australian election was so close that at the time of writing, I still don’t know who will be the new Australian prime minister. As for the U.S. presidential race, well, I’m clearly missing something.
I don’t rely on social media for my news and current affairs, so I was aware from other sources that the EU referendum and Australian election were going to be much tighter than any social media commentary might suggest. Yet many demographics increasingly get most of their news and opinion from social, without always clicking to read the detailed analysis behind the slogans and headlines. No wonder so many Remain voters were shocked and surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum. These trends also make filter bubbles open to politically motivated manipulation.
There are always at least two sides to any debate. Yet instead of providing a window onto the world, social media has become a massively distorted and personalized fantasy. Our own social media access increasingly reflects our own views, values, and opinions, strengthening our resolve and justifying our beliefs, while hiding or distorting any objective appreciation of the alternatives.
“What I tell you three times is true”
We are bombarded with so much content and information every day that conscious or unconscious filters are not only inevitable but also necessary to help us make sense of it all.
Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, we are less likely to follow, read, and engage with those with whom we disagree. Be honest — whether you vote Republican or Democrat, Leave or Remain, Left or Right — are you more or less likely to follow someone with polar opposite views?
We are less likely to follow, read, & engage with those with whom we disagree says @Kimota. #socialmedia
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While we may have some alternative voices in our networks, chances are that they are far fewer and often tolerated only up to a point. If you’ve ever blocked, unfollowed, or hidden someone’s posts from your newsfeed because you don’t want to see any more of their objectionable-to-you views, then you’re already guilty of reinforcing your filter bubble in the name of comfort.
Echo chambers are nothing new. We’ve always had a choice of which news sources or media pundits to follow — Fox News or CNN, Glenn Beck or John Oliver. Each choice usually has a clear bias. The one-way broadcast nature of mass media, however, is very different from the free-for-all, shout fest of social.
Social media has allowed us all to become media pundits, shouting loudly about whatever beliefs are most important to us right this moment to a much wider audience than we may realize.
Social media algorithms also have the potential to further reinforce and amplify filter bubbles by tracking our behavior to give us more of what we like and less of what we don’t. If we regularly click “like” on news stories that align with our views, we’ll see an increase in similar stories from similar sources.
And filter bubbles aren’t confined to political beliefs. They can be shaped by religion, science, even our individual sense of humor — whatever our beliefs and values are. For example, my wife’s social media environment is starkly different from my own, even though we share many of the same beliefs. Our individual social media environments have become personalized far more than broadcast mass media ever could.
“You know very well you’re not real”
What can marketers learn from this? Can filter bubbles prevent your content or message from getting through to the very people you hope to reach? The short answer is “yes,” and it’s probably only going to get harder as increasing social media dependencies, algorithms, and the sheer amount of competing content further change the landscape.
Marketers can learn from the ways in which the EU referendum played out in social media.
1. Are you trapped in your own filter bubble?
Businesses and marketers can be just as blinded by filter bubbles as anyone else — particularly when guessing at the beliefs, wants, and behaviors of their target customers or audiences.
One clear example was the excruciatingly painful social media campaign by the Stronger In Europe camp that targeted young voters. The #Votin campaign (“Vote In”, get it?) worked on the not-very-deep-nor-accurate insight that young people sometimes drop their “g” when talking. A video was pushed in social that combined grating third-rate electronica beats with fast edits of “yoof” stuff like partying and graffiti, overlaid with chunky captions such as WORKIN, EARNIN, RAVIN, CHATTIN, SHARIN, LIVIN, GOIN, etc.
Not exactly cutting to the heart of the political debate. Instead, this embarrassment of a campaign seemed to carry the simplistic message that votin’ was sorta cool and hip, yeah? This was a view of youth as seen from inside a very different filter bubble.
I’ve certainly worked with and for a few companies over the years that developed similarly distorted and unrealistic views of what the customer experience should be, because the decision-makers within the business lived inside a different social media filter bubble to the rest of us. This can lead to products, content, and customer experiences that might seem logical internally but leave customers cold.
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2. Will your information even be trusted inside someone else’s filter bubble?
What might make perfect logical sense in one filter bubble might seem like nonsense in another, particularly when it draws upon differing assumptions.
A strong theme among Leave voters in the EU referendum was a deep distrust of economists, experts, and elite politicians, summed up by Leave campaigner Michael Gove’s infamous statement that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” Yet, the Stronger In Europe campaign continued to rely on those same economists, experts, and elite politicians without first addressing the reasons for that distrust.
What sources of information will your audience trust? Can you use influencers to gain authority?
Will your information even be trusted inside someone else’s filter bubble? @Kimota. #socialmedia
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3. Are you addressing the right issues?
Different audiences may have very different ideas of the key issues in a particular debate. For some, the EU referendum was about immigration. For others, it was about business. For yet others, it was about sticking it to the bureaucrats. Each required a very different approach to address those concerns.
Similarly, your perception of customer needs, expectations, and values may be very different from what your intended audience perceives from the other side of the looking glass.
Most marketers already use customer personas to gain some understanding of these differences. However, many merely note which social networks each persona uses so they can plan where, when, and how to distribute their content.
Instead, consider the different ways in which each persona will form distinct filter bubbles within those networks, shaping their attitudes and opinions. Will your content be welcomed or ridiculed? Will it even reach them at all or might it be filtered out for not appealing to the opinions and themes of that particular bubble?
Before we can understand the filter bubbles of our customers, we have to recognize and admit to our own. We are all trapped in filter bubbles of our own making and they’ll only become stronger and more distorted by algorithms and personal preference over time.
Yet, by using data and detailed analysis, we might be able to see the world through different eyes. In the end, there is no true reality. There’s just how each one of us perceives the world, recalling the final line of Through the Looking Glass, “Life, what is it but a dream?”
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute
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