Understanding Homophily on the Web
A few days ago I wrote that I worried the Internet is making me stupid because of a phenomenon called "homophily"--the tendency for we humans to connect to and bond with people who share common backgrounds, interests and values. The rise of the social web gives us even greater opportunities to connect with people we wouldn't encounter in physical life. However the features of social media tend to reinforce homophily by pointing us to other people like us, as with rating systems ("other people who bought this book also bought. . " ) and social networking sites where we connect with friends of friends of friends. The effect of this can be that we tend to associate online primarily with those people who think as we do, which in turn can cause us tune out the possibilities that there are other ways to think.
Happily, that post resulted in a rash of comments, as well as a follow-up post from Ethan Zuckerman, one of the people I quoted in my previous post. Previously I had intended to move into a post on strategies for challenging homophily, but that will have to hold for now as I continue to explore my sense of what it means.
I see a few issues here:
- Is homophily about being interdisciplinary or is it about something broader?
- Who is online and what are they doing? Essentially can we believe that we're hearing all voices online?
Is Homophily About Being Interdisciplinary?
Many of my commenters indicated that they don't feel they're being impacted by homophily, pointing to the fact that they read blogs from many different areas of interest. Said May, for example:
I don't really read anyone who writes like me. I write book and movie reviews, but I never like to read blogs that are just book or movie reviews. I write about health and lifestyle stuff but I don't subscribe to any blogs about it either. I subscribe to non-profit and marketing blogs, but I don't write about that kind of thing in my blog for the most part.
Basically, I just pay attention to what I'm interested in online the same way I do in books and magazines. I don't think that makes anyone stupid. That's just following your passion.
Amy Sample Ward has a file that she calls "fun":
What I do to try to keep my mind open is have a folder in my RSS reader called "fun." I add feeds here that aren't ridiculous and silly, but are things that I wouldn't normally associate with my daily job duties. It keeps my mind fresh with new ideas, links I would have never come across, and new friends that I have found usually have a lot more in common with me than I would have expected at first.
What I wonder, though, is if that's enough. Reading blogs outside of your tight interest areas is, no doubt, a good step forward in combating online homophily, but is that really exposing us to different ways of thinking?
In some sense, yes. Different disciplines (i.e., art, science, learning, etc.) have different underlying frameworks for thinking about information, using it, acting in the world, etc. A business mind-set isn't the same as an artistic one.
But I don't think that being interdisciplinary is enough to combat what I'm talking about. I don't think that homophily means that you just have a narrow range of interests. I also think it's about staying within narrow cultural confines that you may not even be aware exist.
If I look at my feed reader, it is stuffed with blogs and news sources that span a broad range of topics, from art, to business, to science and technology. BUT, for the most part, the authors I'm reading are decidedly Western and all are English-speaking--mostly from the US, Canada, the UK and Australia. From what I can tell, most are white and all are over 18. I have a few Indian bloggers in my reader, so that broadens things a little, but honestly, not by a lot.
Because I don't speak another language, I'm not able to read any blogs or articles from non-English speaking authors, not easily anyway, so clearly I'm missing something in terms of their perspectives. And the mere fact that we're still in the early stages of social media adoption means that I'm also hearing from people who have a more technological bent and the means and resources to express themselves online.
My point here is that while I may be reading across a range of disciplines, am I reading across a range of cultural perspectives and various world views? I would say that I'm not. And I doubt that I'm an exception.
It’s my contention that living in the 21st century requires understanding what people think, feel and want in different parts of the world, given that both the challenges and opportunities of next several decades are global, not local ones. (Understanding Iraqi attitudes towards a US occupying force and Shia/Sunni/Kurdish tensions better might have mitigated the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Understanding Chinese and Indian economic aspirations is probably a prerequisite to figuring out how to regulate carbon emissions while those nations embrace automobile ownership. And activists trying to change Chinese policy in Darfur would benefit from better understanding of Chinese pride, the concept of “face” and the power of nationalism.)
This makes sense to me, although I would also argue that we need to have a better sense of the broad range of cultural belief systems that exist within our own country.
As I've discussed here before, my husband and step-son are African-American. It is only through several years of intimate contact with them that I've been able to fully appreciate the complexities and differences in our world views that are a result of our very different backgrounds. Yes, we are American and therefore share a number of beliefs. However the experience of being a black man in America results in a decidedly different world view when compared to my experiences as a white woman. Add in our differing socioeconomic and religious backgrounds and you can see where this creates opportunities for many misunderstandings, as well as deep learning.
My experiences of being married to someone who comes from a very different background than mine have shown me how much I had taken for granted about world views. And I think this is one of the problems of homophily, online or in real life. It's insidious, operating in the background, and it's not until you're engaged in a dialogue with someone who has different ideas of and values about things like the individual vs. the group or attitudes towards authority that you truly appreciate how narrow-minded you can become. If we don't actively challenge ourselves to fight homophily, we can quickly lose sight of the fact that it even exists.
Who Is Online and What Are They Doing?
One of the things that I think we easily forget online is that there are a lot of people who are NOT represented there. Zuckerman, for example, argues that there's a very real digital divide between developing nations and the developed world when it comes to using social media. We also have continuing divides within our own nations. In the US, only 56% of African Americans are online. I was unable to find the percentages of them who are blogging, but I would assume that it's even less than what we see with white Americans because there are fewer African-Americans online. And Danah Boyd has done a nice job of raising the issue of socioeconomic class in MySpace and Facebook, pointing to another kind of digital divide.
This is a problem with social networking sites, too. If we're operating in Facebook, for example, then are we hearing from and connecting to other perspectives? Statistics indicate that only 14% of Facebook users are non-white and 58.4% of them have some college education. Is that representative of a broad range of views and perspectives? I don't think so.
Homophily online is already problematic in that the characteristics of social software tend to draw us toward like-minded people. This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that even if we are to fight those tendencies, we may still be missing significant cultural perspectives because these individuals aren't even a big part of the online social commons in which we're operating.
Why Should We Care?
Why am I spending so much time and thinking on this issue? Because I think that it's the hidden problem of homophily that creates silos we don't even realize we're living in.
As this study shows, the more we deliberate and discuss with other like-minded people, the more polarized we can become in our views of the world. It becomes increasingly difficult for us to imagine any other way of thinking about the world because we spend most of our time talking to people who think like we do.
I see this, for example, in myself. I tend to be attracted to people online who see the value of social media. The more time I spend conversing with them about how great it is, the more difficult it becomes for me to deal with "traditionalists" who are less enamored of the technologies. I find myself dismissing them as "Luddites" or wanting to argue them out of their beliefs, rather than trying to understand their thought processes or perspectives.
Further, as Zuckerman points out, the more we're blinded to homophily at work, the more likely we are to miss huge issues, trends and opportunities. This is what I meant when I said that the Internet was making me stupid.
Maybe what I've described here are my own personal failings. Maybe I'm the only one who has a decided lack of cultural perspectives represented in my feed reader. But I'm not sure that's true. I think that many (most?) of us do this, at least on occasion. It's human to be attracted to people like us--it makes us feel safe to say "me too" and to find our "tribe" of like-minded believers. Homophily is a sort of default setting that has the advantage of making use feel safe, but that can, in the process, blind us to the fact that we're no longer associating with other tribes on a regular basis. The first step in changing this, though, lies in recognizing that we're doing it, even if we think that we aren't.
Photos via chrisjfry and puroticorico
Thanks for this post, Michele. It is a term I am not familiar with, so I see now what you are getting at. I'm trying desperately not to agree with you so that I can prove I do not have a bad case of homophily!
But I certainly get the point about ignoring people who are not into social media which is what I find myself doing more and more - a timely reminder to look at how I see the world.
Posted by: Sarah Stewart | April 26, 2008 at 10:07 PM
I've been thinking lately about what society is doing to help people connect to the internet. If internet access was free to everyone, that would lift a real barrier to the web 2.0 world. I haven't heard very much about ensuring that broadband access is available to all, although 5 years ago it seemed like that was the big plan (in my country at least--Canada).
There are large numbers of people in Canada and the US who cannot afford to have access to the internet. As you mentioned the voices we aren't hearing as much come from marginalized communities--we need to hear their voices. If we can't tackle internet access in our own countries, how can we tackle internet access for those who can't afford it in the rest of the world? Anyone know how to make this happen?
Posted by: Claire Thompson | April 27, 2008 at 12:02 AM
Hi Michele, I found us sharing space on Ethan's blog (serendipity?) and find this whole growing discussion very interesting. Thanks for sharing all these great thoughts.
The boundaries of disciplines are fuzzy, as are the boundaries of cultures (and even ethnic identities), political views, or any way we try to classify people. Yet we let these constructs decide for us who's in and who's out, and what's interesting and what's not. We're not taught how not to know things, or how to manage our own limited and imperfect knowledge.
I don't know if you read my own homophily post, but I tried to illustrate that we've got to recognize that we don't know what we thought we did. Homophily is what keeps us from that revelation.
I've got a lot more thinking to do about this, for myself personally and --as an expat knowledge worker-- professionally.
Posted by: tom | April 27, 2008 at 12:05 PM
I have a fairly diverse feed reader, but I will say that I have a tendency to unsubscribe to people who are consistently contrary to my beliefs and values. And I never talk to them, just lurk.
I'm better about seeking out and intentionally interacting with difference offline, but this is certainly making me reconsider how I am doing this. My goal has been to greet difference with curiosity, and to seek understanding.
Really though, am I being authentic if in the privacy of my own feed reader I am behaving differently?
As usual, you are provoking deep reflection.....
Posted by: Christine Martell | April 27, 2008 at 02:28 PM
Thanks for this very thoughtful and self-aware exploration of the homophily issue. You gave me a lot to ponder.
For me personally, I need a particular question or project to go looking outside my own silo. The world is too diverse and fascinating to incorporate into my RSS subscriptions. That means my exposure to other cultural assumptions, outlooks, frames of reference etc. - would occur when I'm searching the web, not subscribing to feeds. Likewise, most of the page reads on my blog are done by searchers from around the globe, not feed subscribers. My readers will challenge their preconceptions by exposing themselves my culturally confined content, such as it is. That tells me that blogs are a tool that has its limitations like cameras, cars and chain saws. Automobiles deprive us of the "airplane experience", the "passenger railroad milieu", the "pedestrian mindset" and the "bicycle point of view". The "automobile divide" is as pervasive as those digital and social-economic class divides.
It seems to me that breaking out of cultural confines takes a large staff and a big budget. I don't see how an individual can get into the mindset of people from Uruguay, Uganda, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. That's the work of globe watchers like the the World Bank, the World Health Organization and the CIA. The amount of media generated by other cultures is staggering. The lack of access in other cultures to digital realms does not characterize the amount of radio, TV and print content that gets generated throughout the world. There also lots of gathering of narratives, first person interviews and other kinds of field work in order to understand conflicting, elusive and subtle frames of reference. Even with lots of resources, the job gets done poorly. One of my favorite books on this topic is "Imperial Hubris", written by the CIA staffer in charge of empathizing with Osama Bin Laden's huge following in the Muslim world. The top echelon in the CIA and Bush administration could not think outside their silos and grasp the profound significance of Bin Laden's heroics for many more than the disenfranchised Muslim youth.
If what I'm saying gets taken wrong, it will sound like I'm defending bigotry, maintaining cultural stereotypes and letting us off the hook to understand others. I'm in favor of challenging our preconceptions, like you are, when we have a particular issue or question to organize a search.
Posted by: Tom Haskins | April 27, 2008 at 06:34 PM
Another area where homophily is politics. I don't live in the USA, but democrats and republicans don't really talk to each other about politics, I believe. The blogosphere since to be very liberal, almost to the point that you can't believe there are conservatives in the USA.
Posted by: Meryn Stol | April 27, 2008 at 06:47 PM
Thanks so much for your great posts about this phenomenon. Reading them reminded me of an article by Tim Wise titled "White Privilege: Swimming in Racial Preference" (http://www.tolerance.org/news/article_tol.jsp?id=722). In it, Wise argues that white privilege for white people is like water for fish: neither we nor they realize how completely it surrounds us or how much it influences what we do every minute of every day.
It sounds like that is what you're getting at. We don't even realize the people we're not hearing from nor the privilege attached to being able to navigate social media, period. I've seen it in myself for sure--hanging out with people who think (and largely look) like me has made my beliefs even more entrenched, to the point where even if I do disagree, I rarely mention it. *sigh* That wasn't my intention, but it looks like that is what is happening.
Obviously, realizing it is a good first step, but I'm excited to see your future posts (hopefully) offering some suggestions to start breaking out of it.
Posted by: Elisa | April 29, 2008 at 10:37 AM
Elisa--white privilege is exactly what I'm talking about. I also think that there's male privilege and class privilege and "developed country" privilege--issues that are also at work with social media.
I'm not sure what all the answers are. I know that in my personal practice, I'm trying to bring social media to as many disenfranchised people as possible because I believe that these are the tools of empowerment and collective action. I think this is an issue that deserves much more conversation and recognition, though, as I don't believe that we'll achieve the true power of the social web until we figure this out.
Thanks for forcing me to be more explicit, Elisa.
Posted by: Michele Martin | April 29, 2008 at 10:49 AM
Well Michele, I think you’ve got it right when you say, “the first step in changing this (homophily) lies in recognising that we're doing it”.
The Internet permits asynchronous and synchronous chat, on a huge scale. This interactive facility was not possible on such a scale before. It permits openness in these different chat forms that never existed before it came into being. What other means of communication would have given access to millions, nay billions of people, whether or not they suffer from homophily? The Internet no more makes me dumb than the telephone does, or the crystal set did way back in the days when I used to make and listen to these things.
People use tools to learn and communicate and do all sorts of useful deeds as well as destructive things with them in their lives. There’s an old saying “poor craftsmen blame their tools”. The one important factor in all this is me, I’m happy to say. I am in control of my dumbness, not the telephone nor the Internet – not even the people I meet. Only I can do something about any tendency I have to homophily if that affects my dumbness. And I don’t think that I am all that different from the billions of people who have access to the Internet. They too have opportunities to control how dumb they become.
One thing the Internet has done for me though - I’ve learnt to spell ‘dumber’, so I must be less dumb now than I was when I first read your original blog :-)
Posted by: Ken Allan | April 29, 2008 at 04:51 PM
On a more practical note, Michele, you spoke of the number of people who have online capability and reflected on the actual proportion of those who are participating in blogging.
If you are not familiar with the work done by B. Nonnecke and J. Preece, you may be interested to look at some of the amazing research and writing they’ve done on the phenomenon known as lurking.
Lurkers are widely known to make up over 90% of most online groups. This has significant implications when working with online learning communities. Non-active lurkers are those with online capability but who do not log on. They tend to make up the largest proportion of all members in an online group and are in fact non-participants and certainly “not part of the conversations”. I suspect that the proportion of people who are accessing blog sites, including social networking service sites, would be very small.
I’m always amazed at how few comments are posted against even popular topics blogged on the Web. Considering the millions of people throughout the world who have online capability, the number of those who participate by posting comments is electron-microscopically small. I know in my own workplace (I work alongside several hundred like-minded people - homophily is rife) there are very few if any who would do what I did to put this comment on your blog site.
Posted by: Ken Allan | April 30, 2008 at 05:28 AM