Understanding Homophily on the Web
The 31 Day Comment Challenge: Becoming a Better Blog Citizen

Combating "Birds of a Feather" Syndrome

Marbles For the past few days I've been deep into thinking and learning about homophily, our tendency to connect to people who share similar backgrounds, experiences, interests and values. I've been excited to see a conversation beginning to occur both here in comments and at other blogs. It's interesting to see the conversations evolve and new pieces being added to the puzzle.

As I continue my reading, discussions and thinking, I've delved into some concepts I haven't visited for awhile, most particularly the nature of networks and two types of behaviors that occur to build them--bonding and bridging activities. I think that these offer additional ways to think about the issue of homophily and give us some strategies for creating a better balance for healthier network growth.

Adaptive Networks and the Role of Bonding and Bridging Activities
If you believe in the value of networked learning, it's because you've observed that there's value in the social capital that we develop through our participation in networks. In other words, we benefit from our connections to the people in our network.

However, as Lenore Newman and Ann Dale observe in their paper on Network Structure, Diversity and Proactive Resilience Building, not all social networks are created equal:

". . . networks composed of "bridging" links to a diverse web of resources strengthen a community's ability to adapt to change, but networks composed only of local "bonding" links which compose constraining social norms and foster group homophily can reduce resilience."

This paper raises a couple of issues for me--the idea of bonding and bridging activities and the notion that we need a healthy balance of both to create resilient networks.

Clearly it's the bonding opportunities that attract most of us to social media and the development of our personal networks. How excited we become by finding legions of like-minded people who finally "get us." It's the many instances of "me too" and "I've had that experience" that seem to most draw us together. They are a big part of what makes learning through social media so rewarding--we feel part of a large learning family.

These bonding activities help us build strong networks, but how resilient are those networks in adapting to change? Again from Newman and Dale:

"A densely developed social capital network can, for example, lead to the exclusion of outsiders, make excess claims on group members, and restrict individual freedom (Portes, 1998). Bonding capital has the potential to hinder social innovation by 1) cutting off actors from needed information and, 2) imposing social norms that discourage innovation.

My interest in homophily developed as part of my consideration of why edubloggers and bloggers involved in workplace learning were not having more dialogue on 21st century literacy skills. I realize now that what I was observing was that the bonding behaviors for both groups have been very strong, creating internal cohesion, and a great sense of community. However there have been fewer bridging behaviors connecting the two communities, effectively cutting each group off from learning more from the other. This, in turn, may seriously impact both groups' abilities to adapt to the changes they are currently experiencing.

Bridging behaviors, argue Newman and Dale are what help us create resilient networks:

Bridging social capital allows actors to access outside information and overcome social norms with support from outside the local network, in addition to increasing access to diverse forms of other capital. Because bridging capital brings in new and potentially novel information, it is here that bonding capital provides the group resilience needed to absorb the benefits of bridging capital; the two capitals are complementary. The sheer amount of social capital is not likely to be a good indicator of how well a community will be able to engage problems. It is a dynamic balance of bonding and bridging social capital that builds resilience and makes the difference between a small community “getting by” or “getting ahead” (Dale and Onyx 2005).

What strikes me here is this quote: "The sheer amount of social capital is not likely to be a good indicator of how well a community will be able to engage problems." 

Right now, we have a huge quantity of social capital that is being developed every day. If I look at the communities I'm dealing with, for example, new bloggers come online constantly, adding their voices to the conversation. But the issue isn't the quantity, of course. It's the mix of bonding vs. bridging that goes on that truly is the measure of the effectiveness of the network, both on a large scale, as well as in individual personal learning networks. If my personal learning network consists of people who largely think as I do, then I'm focusing too much on bonding and not enough on bridging and need to find a way to develop greater bridging social capital. It's why sometimes I feel like I'm stagnating ("getting by") rather than growing ("getting ahead.").

Bridge Developing More Bridging Social Capital
The question becomes then, how to engage in more bridging? I actually think it begins with diagnosing my tendencies toward homophily--a homophily self-assessment if you will. This is something I've started to do here and, through comments, discovered that Tom Hamilton is doing on his own blog. The first step in solving a problem is to admit you have it.

I can also start building bridges myself between the various communities I belong to, something that Meryn Stol suggested I do.

But these are relatively simple steps that don't get at some of my deeper concerns. What I'm wondering now are things like:

  • How do I find and connect to more diverse voices online? As I said the other day, I don't know that this is an issue of me being more interdisciplinary--I already read a fairly diverse set of materials. This is more about finding the voices that don't echo what I already believe. I'm honestly not sure how to do that? How do I do a search on "the opposite of The Bamboo Project"?
  • What do I do about not having access to a lot of other perspectives? How do you connect to groups of people who are not online and who may not be part of your physical network either?
  • What are the best ways to build bridges between communities? I can do as Meryn suggested, visit various blogs and leave comments and links to pull the two groups together, but does that work? And if only a few people do it, can you really achieve the critical mass necessary to build the bridges?
  • How do you get homophilous communities to be more open? One of my ongoing frustrations with building bridges between academic and workplace learning communities (both on and off-line) is that both seem to be closed to the perspectives of the other. The work world is dismissive of education as being too "academic" and not getting the real world, while educators feel that businesses don't understand the pressures and issues that they live with. Each may be speaking some truths, but I also think that these are symptoms of the closed networks that each group has created. Homophily breeds intolerance and polarization.
  • How can we get technology to help? The current state of social media is that it tends to build strong bonds, but it doesn't necessarily contribute to building bridges. Nat Torkington has some ideas here on how to mix things up. I'd like to actually see these at work in social software.

This is obviously an ongoing issue for me, something I'm trying to understand as I honestly believe that we will not get the full benefit of social media until we can figure out how to build more resilient networks through bridging social capital.

What ideas do you have for how we could build more bridging behaviors and opportunities into our online activities? How can we find more diverse voices and create connections between different communities so we could learn from each other?

Photos via Michelle Brea and WisDoc


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I thought of your homophily post at the weekend, and the comment I'd made.
I was doing a number of things on the computer over the weekend, which made me realise that I'm probably not as limited in my contacts as I thought that I was.
Leaving aside the fact the PC didn't go on at all on Saturday as it was sunny, and my garden needed weeding!
However, a friend contacted me to ask if I'd moderate a forum - computer self help being the subject; I then had to do some sorting out in a community that I'm helping to set up - two in fact, for VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas - one primarily for volunteers in country; and one for supporters, returned volunteers, out going ones etc). I then spent quite a bit of time doing moderating and tweaking a rather large email list that we've just migrated from Mailman to Google groups - that's looking at Old Girls School Stories of the early 20th Century. So, quite a range, really; that was all before I started to look at "work related" communities, blogs & wikis!

In healthcare at least it seems that various disciplines prefer to learn from those of the same specialty or educational background (docs, nurses, etc). While this approach spares the need to admit lack of familiarity with a subject, explain specialty specific acronyms, or a clinician's perspective, it does isolate us from the wonderful ideas of other professions.

I live in 3 worlds: healthcare, information systems, and education. All have great ideas yet individual (and at times conflicting) views on the same subjects.

How do I bridge the gap? By reading blogs like this one and several others I can point healthcare folks to options, spread some ideas, and translate some terms and concepts to more familiar language and examples.

Thanks for all you do to bridge gaps and promote collaboration and communication!


Emma--sounds like your horizons are expanded!

And Bill, I hear you on how people seem to stick with their various disciplines in healthcare. This seems to be true in a lot of industries, which I think is unfortunate. I think your strategy of trying to comment across blogs, etc. is a good one. Some of us have to be the bridges, right? :-)

I'm new to commenting on other people's blogs, but in the spirit of the 31 day comment contest I'll add my 2 cents worth.

As an educator, elementary level, my peers and I spend time in discussion on how to improve literacy, numeracy and conceptual math. We also spend a considerable amount of time in discussion on the needs of our students. While we discuss these seemly education-only related issues the discussions always have a bigger scope. How will the issues we worry about prepare these children for their future?

We design curriculum using co-operative groups, project-based learning, UDL (Universal Design for Learning), integrate technology into whatever we can, fighting privacy and safety issues along the way because not only are these good educational practices, but they are teaching skills needed in the "real world" - the workplace.

Why is it that the two groups, educators and business do not collaborate more? Is it because education at the turn of the century was based on a "mechanistic" theory that had a factory-based focus and now teachers run from such an educational model and they fear it might somehow return if business were to collaborate with education? Is it because educators are dictated to - in the elementary and high school level at any rate - by government, whether it be national, state or here in Canada, provincial? Educators are not always happy with this interference and maybe they tend to stick together rather than dialog with business due to the fear of being "dictated" to again by another group who will add to the continuing lessening of educators' autonomy over their own curriculum and assessment.

I'm not really sure why the collaboration isn't there, but what there is, is a strong awareness we are preparing our students for the work world as well as for post-secondary education.

Maybe, with the incredible rise in the use of Web 2.0 tools the dialog will begin to bridge with some of us commenting on other's blogs as we all become more comfortable using the Web to communicate and share ideas.

Michele, This was a great piece to get us thinking more about homophily.

I did some reading on social capital a long time ago, and I'm glad you brought that up. I think the contrast of different types of social capital makes sense, but when I think about cases of, for example, different ethnic groups living in the same neighborhood, or Bill's doctors and nurses in the same clinic, I see that many (most?) members of a group may not feel a need for bridging, or consider the cost of bridging too much for the potential benefit.

While working in minority language projects in Guatemala I remember some research on the concept of cultural brokers. This idea focuses the bridging social capital into a relatively few bicultural members of society who facilitate interchange, perhaps a minority teacher or entrepreneur. Bill and yourself might be examples as well of cross-disciplinary brokers. Global Voices Online uses a similar idea with their bridge bloggers.

Bridging behavior makes you slightly odd to folks on both sides of the divide, so it's not such a popular job. People might admire you for what you do, but don't necessarily want to emulate you: learning languages and hanging out with Others is too much to ask; they'd rather you just explain the other side to them.

What's funny to me is that (seems to me) social networks get started by these bridge or broker types, who enjoy experimentation and mixing it up (bridging-broker-birds of a feather?). Then, as the networks grow, the dynamic changes. Each newcomer faces a larger, more established looking community, and organizational culture creep starts.

Well, you've got me thinking about this some more, so I've got my next few posts cut out for me!

Tom, that concept of "cultural brokers" is something that Amy Gahran mentioned in a comment on one of my other homophily posts. She said that the thinks that xenophiles, who spend time in different cultures and love them, are the "bridgers" and that perhaps their skills are the skills we'll all need to develop in order to really thrive in a global economy. I think she's right, but what's interesting is that I doubt it will get adopted as being a critical skill because of the fact that the communities that are having the discussions seem to be so insular in the first place.

I also think you make an excellent point about communities sort of being taken over by bonders when often they are created by bridgers. I know it's the nature of the beast, but at the same time, it seems like it's something we have to actively fight against.

Looking forward to your future posts on this!

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