Freaking out over ‘filter bubbles’: what’s all the fuss?
The ‘filter bubble’, a phrase coined by Eli Pariser (CEO of Upworthy), presents an intriguing online phenomenon that many hold accountable for any number of significant real-world events, from the result of the British referendum on EU membership to Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections. Anyone who finds themselves scrolling through Facebook on a regular basis, mining Google or Yahoo for information or perusing the headlines on outlets like the Huffington Post will, at one time or another, have been floating at the centre of a filter bubble.
What is a filter bubble?
Those of us who depend on the World Wide Web for the fulfilment of daily tasks and routines are being carefully watched: the platforms we use are quietly monitoring our preferences, feeding them through algorithms and treating us to more content of a similar kind. This “personalised search” function and the associated algorithms are considered by many to mark an invaluable breakthrough – and certainly from a marketing and advertising point of view you can see that it’s a tempting system. But many commentators suggest that a cycle in which consumers are consistently and repeatedly provided with the same side of an argument creates a dangerous echo chamber effect.
Further jeopardy lies in the invisible nature of the bubbles – they’re not an environment one enters knowingly, nor can one choose to leave. Individuals and groups with opposing political opinions gradually disappear from your Facebook timeline, or Google and Yahoo deliver a carefully selected collection of news angles that chime with your ideological stance. Over time, you find that your sources of information have you locked in an entirely homogenous digital environment.
How do filter bubbles affect us?
As you’d expect, spending time surrounded by opinions that reflect your existing views leaves little room for persuasive or meaningful debate. Sympathy for opposing positions becomes harder to summon, and you learn less and less about the full spectrum of experience and belief.
What’s the big deal?
They certainly don’t sound ideal, but are filter bubbles really that dangerous? They are, after all, merely digital constructs. But the growing chorus denouncing filter bubbles counts some seriously authoritative voices in its number. Bill Gates, for example, has condemned filter bubbles, arguing that they limit people’s intellectual development and isolate groups, rather than bringing them together.
Ironically, filter bubbles also seem to contradict the fundamental principles behind the internet, which works to disseminate free information and connect disparate groups of people.
When filter bubbles team up with their digital cousin, fake news, some might suggest they risk fuelling extremist activities. A user who regularly accesses information about far-right extremism, for example, might quickly find themselves in a personal online world populated with articles endorsing Holocaust denial.
Facebook and Google are increasingly treated as news outlets, but unlike traditional publications, these platforms are not bound by a code of ethics, and there is little or no human monitoring of the algorithms’ selected output.
How do filter bubbles influence search marketing?
From a search marketing point of view, it is vitally important that marketers take filter bubbles and algorithms into consideration – and regard them with a healthy dose of concern.
The first thing to note from the filter bubble phenomenon is that ranking systems have multiplied, so that searches on Google are personalised even when someone is not logged into their Google account. Keyword rankings are, consequently, no longer an effective measurement of organic ranking improvement. Damage control is available in the form of KPIs, which monitor search engine optimisation efforts (like overall organic traffic numbers), landing page visits or conversions from organic traffic.
It’ll be a harder battle than ever before to effectively fight the filter bubble dynamic and reach new audiences. But to know who they’re targeting, marketers must know who they’re looking to avoid. Audience profiling is essential for working out which brands bubbles appear in, and which are bubble-free.
Integrating search with a comprehensive content and social media strategy will help to break through different filter bubbles and reach higher, fresher plains.
What should Facebook and Google be doing?
It’s widely acknowledged that Facebook and Google aren’t energetically committed to counteracting the negative effects of filter bubbles. Their low-key approach seems to greatly underestimate the speed with which filter bubbles are polarising a previously more connected world.
Facebook ran its own study on filter bubbles and concluded that filter bubbles tended to be generated by the user, rather than by algorithms themselves – they would deny, for example, that filter bubbles had an impact on recent election results.
The algorithms that build filter bubbles in the first place are continually updated by Google. Only time will tell if the era of personalised searches will stretch on, or if the bubble will pop.
How can we burst our filter bubbles?
For the time being, it’s down to individual users to break out of their filter bubbles. The first step is awareness; the next is an active appetite for alternative views – reporting and opinion pieces that wrestle with your own position.
In political sense, taking the time to understand an opposing opinion and publicly open a meaningful debate is the best way to ensure that the filter bubble effect is limited where possible.
Filter bubbles and the future
The algorithms that have produced filter bubbles aren’t necessarily the ‘bad guys’. They allow us to stay in touch with our friends, engage in political causes, work with global organisations and stay abreast of current affairs. They also make life considerably more convenient. Google can, for example, identify the difference between a local and general search and lead us to the information we’re most likely to want.
As our awareness of filter bubbles improves, more of us will take our own steps to break out of our echo chambers, and chances are the algorithms will adapt to reflect this. It’s a user’s world, and ultimately Google and Facebook will do what they can to serve our changing needs.