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The Age of Social Media Bubbles

June 27, 2017 - Mark Newton

What do you like doing in your spare time?

No, I’m not chatting you up – just have a think. Maybe it’s listening to certain types of music, or doing fitness activities at the weekend. You might like to kick back reading a particular magazine or maybe you love to spend your time in the kitchen.

Let’s take those four things and transpose them to what you might do in the online world.

Music: you decide to follow some reggae bands or review sites on Facebook. Fitness: you follow some inspirational weight trainers on Instagram. Magazine: you follow a trendy left-leaning (for example) political news site or download their app. Cooking: you start following people on Instagram and Pinterest to keep up to date with interesting cake recipes.

You might begin to interact with any of these new pages on Facebook and share their posts on your own timeline. You read their articles and watch their videos. You consume this new content.

Okay. So from there, what wouldn’t you do?

If you’re into reggae, there’s a good chance you’re not interested in following the Biebs. If you’re into weights, you’re maybe not following people who love junk food. If you’re into modern news magazines, you’re probably not reading the Daily Mail. And if you’re into baking cakes, then you’re not going to be interested in following a top vegan salad influencer (unless you’ve guilted yourself into it).

What we do is follow and share what we’re interested in. But we ignore what we are not interested in.

That’s natural, right?

Enter the algorithm

Facebook launched its news feed in 2006. You probably weren’t even on Facebook then. In fact, hardly anyone was on Facebook then. People could post what they wanted, when they wanted, and you’d probably see most of those updates. Happy days.

Then brands piled in alongside your mother and your dog and soon it became harder to actually see everything. In fact, it was tough to keep up.

Facebook began to sort these posts in 2009, updating its news feed to reflect popular posts. Making incremental adjustments, the network began to present to us the things we’d be interested in. Instagram (owned by Facebook) did the same more recently. Other networks have made adjustments like this too – so you don’t miss out on what most engages you.

We are presented with what it thinks we most like to see, rather than in the order they naturally occur. As your attention is drawn to the things you like – cakes or reggae as above – you’ll be interacting with those things first. Because you like them. Consequently, your Facebook or Instagram feeds become full of cake (no bad thing).

Of course, networks like Facebook do present information to us like this because they want us all to spend more and more time on them. Facebook is a business, after all – it’s already got your attention, and it wants to keep it there.

More controversially – some might say – Facebook began making tiny adjustments. It did things like tweak what types of news articles you might like to see based on your preferences. (It probably knows what politicians you and your friends liked, or what newspapers you were reading, so made some educated guesses.) It gave you tools to hide what you didn’t want to see. Meanwhile, you kept liking and sharing the things you actually liked. You surrounded yourself on social media with the people you agreed with or liked.

And, without really meaning to, you found yourself inside a social media bubble.

The news you consumed, the brands you’re interested in, the thought-leaders you follow said what you want to hear. Life is cosy inside the bubble.

What does that mean for advertisers?

For advertisers, the existence of social media bubbles is dream – so long as you know what you’re doing. Let’s look at this positively at first, because Facebook has provided the single most powerful advertising tool in the world.

You can build your brand and sell more stuff based on precise interests. You’re a new reggae band? You can create a behind the scenes video and serve it up in front of like-minded music fans to build an audience. You want to start a hipster cake baking school? You can find every wannabe baker who also buys beard-grooming products in your area. You’ve got a protein shake to sell? You can tap-up anyone who’s interested in weights.

Instead of advertising being about largely irrelevant brands creating irrelevant TV adverts that interrupts our experience – or a billboard that we ignore because we’re already looking at our phones – Facebook and Instagram advertising is highly relevant, and highly engaging.

Remember that Facebook wants users to see things that they like? Good, relevant and effective advertising serves this up effectively. Unlike, say, PPC or SEO – you don’t even have to wait for people to be looking for your type of products to get in front of them. Get the right creative, know who you’re targeting (we can help you with all of this) then you’ll be rewarded by fantastic ROI.

However, if you’re not doing things effectively, you could pour money down the drain. Facebook has set up the infrastructure, it’s given us these bubbles – you just need to know how best to use that to your brand’s advantage.

What does that mean for consumers?

The downside of social media bubbles is that, because of the algorithm and our online habits, we become exposed to an increasingly narrow set of opinions, a select amount of views of the world. There is less madness, less clutter, but at the price of variety of thought.

Over time, on social media, we’ve become more blind to other points of view. This is especially the case if we get most of our news from Facebook, or follow journalists that write for one type of newspaper on Twitter.

Such is the potency of these bubbles, they might contribute to a more polarised world, one that gives us more extreme politicians (Twitter = Trump). We engage in ‘echo chambers’, and share information that might not even be true so long as it sounds good enough. And guess what? Few people correct us, because we’ve surrounded ourselves only by the people who align with our beliefs.

Until the algorithms evolve again to help with the way information is being presented to us, then this way of constructing our own worlds will become increasingly more entrenched. The bubbles are no one’s fault – they’re merely an unintended consequence of refining our online experience.

So what can we do?

That depends if you want to do anything. You build your own online experience, after all.

As people who work with online content and social media day in, day out, it’s easy for us to take a step back. We can see how the social machine works, because we use it – so perhaps we’re more aware of when something weird comes into our news feed, or that the news feed feels like the same thing each day.

A challenge for social media day

It’s social media day on Friday 30th June. Wouldn’t it be great if we went out there with a slightly different outlook? Perhaps we looked at a few brands or sites that we might not ordinarily look at.

Try following a magazine that reviews a different genre, a different type of cooking, a paper with another outlook on politics, or even following a different sport. Just expose our minds to different things – even if we unfollowed them a few days later.

Would it upset the algorithm? Maybe not. At least we’ll start to watch what’s being served up in our news feed, and whether we would otherwise be missing coverage of interesting, but different issues. It’s a very fine-line between interacting with like-minded people and striving to be an open-minded consumer of content.

Mark Newton

Mark Newton

Content Specialist

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