Has Google+ just made it even harder for brands to enter the filter bubble?


The internet has revolutionised modes of discovery. I know I was excited the first time I used music recommendation service Last.fm – a constant feed of new music fed to me, based on the music I already knew I liked. However, the excitement didn’t last, though it may have been expanding the list of artists I listened too, it was narrowing the different kinds of music I made time for. I have since always found the ‘people who liked this also like…’ principle to be flawed, as it generally serves you up a plate of ‘more of the same’. To really find something new online, you have to force yourself out of your comfort zone.
In The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser expounds this issue, discussing how the socially connective internet shows you information according to what it thinks (or what you have told it) you want to see. We increasingly connect with people, interests, brands and media of our political or philosophical persuasions. This means that in a quest to appease us and their advertisers, our networks and even search engines show us more of the same or similar, arguably narrowing our world view.
This is why you see the more intelligent of social media marketers talking about the need to ‘disrupt’. Increasingly brands must find a workaround; if they are not already on a consumer’s online watch list, they must attach themselves to something that is. This has inevitably meant more brands partnering with musicians, filmmakers and artists, more competitions and giveaways. Anything that places the brand in front of people who self-edit the media they consume more than people ever have done before.
It is interesting that Google have chosen to name the mode of friending/following (I’m not sure which it’s closer too yet) ‘circles’ in their new social network Google+. They could just as easily have been called bubbles, but I’m sure they were aware of the negative connotations of giving them that name. I like Google+, and circles are definitely a far more natural (read: closer to real life) way of interacting with your contacts than the blanket approaches of both Facebook friends and Twitter followers. But the issue of ‘circles’ intrigues me in the context of the filter bubble.
So far I have only one particularly active ‘circle’ on Google+, titled ‘digital types’ – unsurprising as the site is still largely populated by eager early adopters. But I have designs on forming an active ‘music’ circle, a ‘football’ circle so I don’t have to spam those uninterested in my take on the new Premier League season, perhaps even a ‘Chelsea’ circle so I can be as fervently biased as I like without fear of reproach. I am sure most of my online contacts are quite happy about the latter two, but moments such as when I discovered my sister was finding most of her new music by browsing my shared Spotify playlists will not happen. If she does join Google+ I will now add her to my ‘music’ circle, but I would not have done before as I didn’t have her labelled as someone I talk to music about. Those moments of serendipity and new discovery, of truly new things at least, will surely be decreased.
I’m not saying that we should all mourn the imminent stemming of me sharing my music taste; I mean there are moments where I have discovered books, films, music and ideas from Twitter because of its openness. Twitter itself is still self-moderated, I will only follow you if you tweet (at least occasionally) about something that interests me, but Google+ looks to seal off the bubbles we create for ourselves even further. If my next favourite band or book is going to have trouble getting through, how on earth will a brand manage to penetrate?
There is also the sparks feature, which many have said is where brands can expect to achieve cut through, but looking at the sparks I have set up so far (‘Radiohead’, ‘iPhone’, ‘snowboarding’, ‘Chelsea FC’) this seems to me to be even more filter-bubble-like. If I am not already interested in a brand, why would I see fit to add them as a spark? To get your brand even mentioned here is going to take a very clever partnership, creativity and in depth, bang up to date knowledge of SEO.
Ford Europe have just become the first brand to do a Google+ giveaway, enjoying the ‘first’ effect. 
I become frustrated with the reliance many brands have on giveaways and competitions to build their social media presences (the approach delivers spikes, not a consistently engaged audience) so I can see how this could grow as the Google+ audience grows, but I don’t feel it can be the answer.
Apparently brand and business pages are in the pipeline for Google+, but I suspect as my colleague Mark assessed in his initial analysis of the prospects Google+ has for PR that this will still mean more emphasis on brands ensuring their stories are more interesting and shareable.