I learned a new word this week--"homophily," which is the tendency for people to associate and bond with others who share their interests, values, culture, demographics, class etc. This is the all-too-familiar online behavior I was remarking on earlier this week in my post on 21st century workplace literacy. There I noted that it seems like edubloggers tend to associate online with other edubloggers, while the workplace learning folks are talking to other workplace learning professionals. And it seems like there's little cross-communication happening between the two groups. I plan to come back to that discussion, especially after seeing all the great comments, but right now I'm fascinated by the whole homophily idea and how social media tools seem to further strengthen this very human tendency.
It was Amy Gahran's post, Breaking out of the Echo Chamber, that helped me identify the phenomenon. It's something I've noticed before, but didn't realize had a name attached to it. I've been thinking that being online has been this fabulous learning experience (which it definitely has been in many ways), but after following Amy's trail of links, I can also see that it also has the potential to make me dumber. She points to an interview with Ethan Zuckerman and Solana Larsen in which Zuckerman says:
“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. . .
“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."
Social media--blogs, social bookmarking, social networks--all of these can be tremendous ways for us to find and bond with like-minded people online. In fact, these tools have allowed us to find even MORE people like us than we tended to encounter in "meat space." The problem is that we'll tend to seek out ONLY like-minded people, looking for groups, blogs, etc. that reinforce our preconceived notions and our personal interests. We then start to live in an online world where we don't see or hear other voices.
Worse, I think we're living under this delusion that we're actually BROADENING our experiences because we're connecting to such large groups of people. I suspect all that does is further reinforce our pre-existing beliefs while at the same time making us believe that somehow we're being broad-minded because there are so many more people in our network. More of the same thinking isn't exactly a recipe for learning.
Partially this is a human thing--we tend to build relationships on finding the commonalities. But it's being encouraged by the technologies:
- We go to Amazon or Netflix and get recommendations for books and movies based on what other people like us are reading or watching.
- On Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace, we tend to first connect with the people we already know in real-life who tend to share our same values and world-view. Then we connect to their friends (who presumably also share similar world-views) and to seek out groups etc. that fit in with our interests and comfort zones. I know, for example, that as a Democrat, I've made zero attempt to find Facebook groups for Republicans. I don't even look at them.
- As I've already noticed, many of us operate within the same narrow blogging fields. Edubloggers seek out other edubloggers, nonprofits seek out other nonprofits. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this--except that if these are the ONLY blogs in our feed readers. (Here's a test, by the way--go check your reader right now and see how many blogs you have in there that come from industries and occupations other than your own. If you do, I'll guess it's because you may also have blogs related to personal interests, etc. Do you have anything in there that doesn't MATCH what you already think? I know I don't have too many).
All of this has the impact of making me dumber. I know this. I think it's been the source of many of my instances of writer's block here. I also can see how it would make me a little lazy as a thinker--not as many challenges to my worldview. Certainly I get comments and suggestions that have me tinkering with the edges of my ideas, but am I encountering things that fundamentally shake my worldview or at least force me to examine my own? And if I do, do I actually examine my view or do I dismiss what I see, read or hear? I'm ashamed to say that many times I do.
The question becomes, what to do about it? If this is something to truly break out of (and I think it is), then how to do that?
That's something I'm going to delve into more deeply in another post. Through Amy's links I found a few ideas. I also found some interesting stuff on my own that I want to explore.
In the meantime--what do you think? Do you see homophily going on in your online interactions? Do you think it's making you dumber? What are you doing about it?