Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber

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 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:

Plus, here are a few more resources I found by following those breadcrumbs:

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.

Thanks, Ethan.

13 thoughts on Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber

  1. I read Sunstein a while back — grad school mass comm profs love Republic since it provides a counterpoint to any and all yay-hooray-ness about the Web that comes through in papers by students like me.

    But, I think something that’s missing from most discussions about homophily is the idea that there’s a two-step process going on here.

    In one, people with common interests find each other online and flock together, starting blogs, building networks, creating community based on something other than geography. They’re creating horizontal bonds and meeting each other, hearing voices they never knew were out there, and discovering that they are not alone.

    The second step is to branch out, find other communities of interest, extend the network based on serendipity. This is happening all day long through Twitter and Stumble Upon and even Digg, Delicious, and yes, the New York Times, which may be a salad bar without editorial guidance, but it’s the biggest salad bar around with some pretty nutritious stuff sitting in those little buckets.

    So I’m not sure how to drive the second step without the first. I don’t see homophily as a danger, but more as a necessary piece of network-building. Because if I don’t have friends, how will I ever meet that friend of a friend who will open my mind to something new?

  2. Great points, Ryan

    I agree that expanding connections between people is a two-step process: First, building skills and infrastructure to support those networks. That part is easiest to accomplish with people with whom you already share characteristics and interests. The second step involves reaching out to people with whom you have less in common. That’s more challenging for a lot of reasons — and many folks are probably content not to bother with it.

    There is an inherent problem of relying on technology and especially the net too much for making and sustaining these connections. Most people in the world don’t have the tools, the access, or the time. Hell, most people in the world don’t even have reliable electricity or fresh water. But they’re still people, they still matter — and they probably have very interesting things to say, given the opportunity.

    My concern is that we’ve been leaning on the net too much, and we need to develop more skills to connect with more people, create a more diverse public and global conversation.

    I’m not sure how to approach this — although I think GVO’s Rising Voices project is an intriguing start.

    I guess I’m just getting a little concerned that we geeky folk are a little too insular, which could prevent us from achieving all the good we’re really capable of.

    – Amy Gahran

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  5. I feel like we’ve reached a hybrid stage of overcoming homophily, which is intellectualizing it. Lots and lots of people link to and agree with Ethan’s astute thoughts about how citizen media can help us make meaningful connections with those outside of our geography/class/ethnicity. But far fewer do I see people clicking through the links on Global Voices and actually making those connections. I hope it’s just a matter of time; that we do all feel like we’re in the same village and that we’re just waiting to feel comfortable enough to walk over and say hello.

  6. Great points, David!

    From your perspective on GVO, what does seem to encourage people to click through to bloggers in other countries? Maybe there are some patterns there that might offer clues about how to encourage people to expand beyond their homophilic comfort zone.

    – Amy Gahran

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  8. That’s a very good question. Unfortunately, web stats don’t tell us much, if anything, about what motivated readers to reach out and make those connections. This is my latest initiative to help encourage people to connect with others.

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