Were you shocked when Donald Trump won the US election? Did you believe that there was no way this could happen when nearly everyone you knew was strongly opposed to Trump and thought Clinton would win easily? Nobody really supported the New York billionaire with a fake orange tan.
You weren’t alone in your disbelief and, like me, are probably still coming to grips with a result that went so against all the news and commentary you read and agreed with.
Welcome to the social media “filter bubble”, deployed with greatest effect by Facebook.
Here’s how it works. Facebook and its news feed algorithm is tuned to show you content you like. The algorithm creates what Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble.”
In his 2011 book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, Pariser predicted the effects the filter bubble could have on democracy.
“Ultimately, democracy works only if we citizens are capable of thinking beyond our narrow self-interest. But…the filter bubble pushes us in the opposite direction — it creates the impression that our narrow self-interest is all that exists. And while this is great for getting people to shop online, it’s not great for getting people to make better decisions together.”
Our social media echo chambers confirm what we believed and want to hear, stunning us when we learn that many other think the opposite. As a result, we aren’t exposed to other ideas and viewpoints and, as Pariser says, “the danger is that increasingly you end up not seeing what people who think differently see and in fact not even knowing that it exists”.
So, while the internet can be a source for all information, these echo chambers we create on social networks actually foster confirmation bias – a type of selective thinking whereby we tend to notice and to look for what confirms our beliefs, and to ignore or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts our beliefs.
This happens in the business world too, where we subscribe to industry media, join certain industry groups and tend to be guided by “group think”, often around the latest business trends. The end result is a certain bland conformity and lack of challenging discussion or break-out thinking and ideas.
Quite often in business we can’t see the forest from the trees because we are so tuned into the conversations, industry speak and day-to-day busyness that we lose perspective and insight. It is also possible that we have created our own business “filter bubbles” on social networks, confirming our views of the business world, what customers want and how to treat staff.
To dilute the effect, we should try to read sources we know we won’t immediately like, that offer an alternative view.
One strategy I have often employed in business is to look to other industries for ideas and information.
Sometimes studying very different fields of endeavour opens you to new opportunities and ideas that allow you to leap out of the pack of bland “me-too” companies with a true competitive advantage.
This article was first published in the Newcastle Herald on February 14, 2017.