|OpenDemocracy, via Flickr (CC license)|
|What might this Malian girl and I have in common, and what might we learn from each other? How could we know if we can’t really connect?|
This morning I listened to an excellent Radio Open Source interview. Host Christopher Lydon was talking to Global Voices Online founder Ethan Zuckerman and GVO managing editor Solana Larsen. I’m a huge fan of GVO and read it regularly — mainly since I enjoy hearing from people in parts of the world I generally don’t hear much about (or from) otherwise.
One of the most interesting parts of the discussion concerned how homophily shapes our individual and collective view of the world. Homophily is a fancy word for the human equivalent of “birds of a feather flock together.” That is, our tendency to associate and bond with people we have stuff in common with — language, culture, race, class, work, interests, life circumstances, etc.
Zuckerman made a profound point: Homophily makes you stupid. Which is another way of saying something my dad told me a long, long time ago:
“You’ll never learn anything if you only talk to people who already think just like you.”
Here’s what Zuckerman actually told Lydon about how homophily makes it hard for people from around the world to relate constructively…
“We know so little about one another, and what we do know is generally so wrong, that our first instinct is to try to shut each other off. …We have to work a whole lot harder. We can’t just assume that being connected [via the net] solves these problems. If you let us work it out on our own, we tend to reinforce our own prejudices and stereotypes.
“If you look at sites like Digg and Reddit, these are sites that promised the future of journalism, where we would all get together and decide what’s important. …But that begs the question: Who’s ‘we?’ If you’re getting your news from these sites, you’re getting a fairly focused, tech-heavy view of the world. You start to fall victim to homophily. It’s a basic human trait, but it’s probably worth fighting.
“Cass Sunstein, an amazing legal scholar, says that one of the dangers of the internet is that we’re only hearing like voices, and that makes us more polarized. Homophily can make you really, really dumb. What’s incredible about the net is we have this opportunity to hear more voices than ever. But the tools we tend to build to it have us listening to the same voices again and again.
“Search in the future needs to lead us to people, to places, to voices. My hope is that in the future we get over homophily and we start looking for really productive serendipity — the sort of serendipity when you go to that shelf in the library and you think you know the book that you’re looking for, but you actually find the book you’re really looking for within 2-3 shelves of it. You think you’re looking for info on the US elections, but you end up finding info on how the Jamaicans are viewing the US elections. You think you’re looking for info on network security and you en d up finding information on why Pakistan is so afraid of YouTube.”
I figured if Zuckerman had so much to say in an interview, he must have written more about the dangers of homophily. And indeed he has. Read his Dec. 17 post, Social software, serendipity and salad bars. A couple of quotes from that post:
“Newspapers like the New York Times have a terrific mechanism to encourage serendipity. In many major newspapers, the lower right-hand side of the front page is reserved for a story that readers would otherwise likely miss. …These stories aren’t selected by algorithms — they’re chosen by editors who want to feature content in the paper that might otherwise be ignored, which frequently includes stories on topics other than Iraq, US elections or terror. Dan Gillmor describes this feature as ‘institutionalized serendipity‘.
“It’s less clear where the institutionalized serendipity lives on the New York Times site. The NYTimes.com homepage features several times as many stories than the front page of the paper edition, but it’s much less clear which ones you’re encouraged to read. There’s more choice and less guidance… which isn’t a bad description for the information universe opened by the Internet. And the guidance that’s offered may be a homophilic form of guidance — in the bottom right of the homepage is a box that offers a list of the 10 most popular stories, as measured by e-mail traffic, blog links and searches. In other words, these are the stories that fellow websurfers found most interesting, not the stories the editors felt you should read, even if you didn’t know you were interested in them.
“The serendipity box in the paper New York Times is a form of persuasive technology — it convinces us to pay attention to information we’d otherwise ignore.
And the finale, in which Zuckerman nails it all:
“Encountering new ideas isn’t a supply problem in today’s internet — it’s a demand problem. There’s a near infinity of people unlike you creating content and putting it online for you to encounter. But it’s entirely possible that you’ll never encounter it if you don’t actively look for it… or unless the systems you use to find ideas start forcing you outside your usual orbits into new territories. Don’t fear the serendipity.”
Zuckerman also linked to some great further reading:
- Republic.com 2.0, a book by Cass Sunstein
- Salon.com interview with Cass Sunstein about Republic.com 2.0
- Zuckerman’s review of Susstein’s latest book, Infotopia.
- Homophily in Social Software, Oct. 2006 O’Reilly Radar article by Nat Torkington
- Echo chambers and homophily, by Danah Boyd
Plus, here are a few more resources I found by following those breadcrumbs:
- Why Everyone You Know Thinks the Same as You, Washington Post, Oct. 16, 2006
- Social Cataloguing for Book Lovers, an IT Conversations interview with Tim Spalding, creator of LibraryThing, a service that offers an intriguing unsuggest feature that directly counters homophily.
On the other hand:
Some people think homophily is a wonderful thing. And they’re not wrong.
For instance, in a homophily theory backgrounder, ChangHyun Jin (Univ. TX, Austin) wrote: “Homophily and effective communication breed one another. …Individuals who …attempt to communicate with others who are different from them often face the frustration of ineffective communication. Differences in technical competence, social status, beliefs, and language, lead to mistakes in meaning, thereby causing messages to be distorted or to go unheeded.”
I’m sure that’s true. It is definitely easier to communicate clearly and with fewer interpretive errors when the sender and recipient have much in common. Which is one possible definition of “effective communication.”
Socially constructive communication is another matter, of course.
What’s the point of fighting homophily?
Seems to me the reason to fight our tendency toward homophily is not to do dismiss the value of commonalities, but rather to broaden our basis for common understanding by being willing to learn more about each other, directly from each other. It’s improving our pattern recognition skills and our ability to reality-check each other. It’s a way to recognize broader and subtler commonalities — even if only by gaining respect for divergent views and experiences.
While this may sound uncomfortable and difficult, I tend to think of it as perpetually working to expand my comfort zone — rather than simply stepping outside it. The bigger and more diverse my comfort zone becomes, the less tunnel vision I will have, and the more interesting my life and work will become. And if a lot of people start thinking that way, then… we’ll all have that much in common.
Which is probably a good place to start.