21st Century Workplace Literacy: What Does that Mean and How Do We Engage More People in the Discussion?
Understanding Homophily on the Web

Why the Internet is Making Me Stupid

Birds_of_a_feather2 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?

Photo via desert trumpet.


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I think there are some interesting points made here. However, while F2F interaction may increase the chances of meeting someone who does not share in your interests and opinions, I'm not sure if doing so would actually make someone less polarized. We still tend to run in groups composed of like-minded people.

I pointed my students to a blog post that Josie Fraser made in October looking at homophily. http://fraser.typepad.com/socialtech/2007/10/homophily.html
They had a range of views on it, though unfortunately several of the students focussed too much on the word (without knowing the greek origins behind it), and didn't really get to grips with the concept.

I very much agree with Joel; in face to face contacts, you may meet people with different viewpionts, though often the meeting ground is as a result of a shared interest (mutual friend, band that you want to see, particular denomination of church, hobby etc). You might then discover you have other shared interests, or nothing in common whatsoever. Chances are those you'll become closer too are those that have other shared interests.

Yes, it goes on; and yes, most of my feeds in my feed reader are Educational Technologists, web designers etc.

Does it make me dumber. No, not really. I'm seeing different people's views of things (I prune my feeds from time to time when I feel I'm not learning any thing from them)

In face to face contacts, if someone starts to discuss something that bores me, I'm far more likely to attempt to change the conversation, to move to another group or whatever, than I am to develop a passionate interest in the finer details of coarse fishing. I;d go and find someone I could talk about blogs to.

Well I'm going to disagree :) . It gets back to the individual and the attitudes you take when building your personal learning environment.

If you look at my networks it encompasses a wide diversity ranging from educators (primary, secondary, tertiary and vocational), non-profits, web designers, instructional designers, people from companies (MS, mobile phones, Web 2.0) etc. My network has a wide diversity of nationalities and many who English isn't their first language.

Plus being in Australia there is a desire for Australians, whatever they do, to want to connect with other Aussies in Twitter -- which helps increase the diversity.

Participating in events like Barcamp are an excellent way of ensuring you don't remain with the same group e.g for me just the edublogging community.

Yes definitely we can argue that my network is heavily weighted with geeky people but my f2f interactions with students and work colleagues keeps me grounded.

Not sure I've argued my points well but it's late here so thats allowed.

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.

If I put the homophily issue in several broader contexts, solutions may seem more close at hand or even something you're already doing.

In cognitive neuroscience, this "indulging on commonalities" is called "a response to danger". The solution is to create increased safety among peers. When feeling threatened, we shrink our "range of tolerable deviance" and stick to our own kind. Our fascination with "stranger danger" vanishes as we cope with the state of siege. We're apprehensive about getting rejected, ostracized, scapegoated or looked upon with the "evil eye". When we're feeling safe, we extend our range of tolerable diversity, thrive on differences and find the unfamiliar fascinating.

In decision-making and administering justice, this is called "a rush to judgement" or "premature convergence". The solution is to consider more options before deciding. When under pressure to appear decisive, focused, committed, respectable, professional, etc -- we naturally gravitate toward consensus. We practice groupthink and collude with those who control the purse strings, power or access to privileges. We would not blow the whistle on the emperor who's new clothes are non-existent. When we considering more options, we complicate the issue, apply more criteria, consider different sub-optimal solutions and approach the issue from several different angles.

In creativity and design, this is called "falling in love with one's idea" or "clinging to a favorite solution". The remedy is to deliberately let go, explore what-if's, disrupt pre-conceptions and mash-up different disciplines (like I'm doing here). When we're creating something new for others, we want them to be pleased with it, find it useful and value it the way we do. We get attached to something that meets those criteria and fear there won't be another inspiration coming along. We close our minds by clinging and miss out on other inspirations and intuitions. When we're feeling creative, we want to make connections between unrelated ideas, stir up controversies, and use metaphors to see familiar things differently.

My guess is that homophily is less of a problem than you're thinking it might be. People with a bad case of this are boring AND you're not narrow minded, Michele!

To counter homophily, I've adopted a casual strategy of "value mining". If I get a chance, I try to talk to people different than me, the more different the better, homeless people for example, to try to figure out what's going on in their life.

Most people are really open if you approach them without judging.

Let me tell you that because you're worrying about homophily, the fact you noticed the word... you're in a VERY good position compared to others. So don't worry too much.

I also read very broad. Check out my bookmarks to get an impression.

I don't believe someone can ever overcome his natural biases completely, but being aware of them - and trying to think what to do about it - goes a long way.

You're absolutely right that homophily combined with the web leads to increased affirmation of current views, for people unaware of their biases combined with a pretty much closed mind (most people I'm afraid).

Thanks for the honesty and thinking points! 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.

Thanks for all these great comments! It looks to me like most of you are using strategies of some sort to combat the phenomenon-reading blogs outside of your main niche, networking with people who aren't in your specific occupational area.

Meryn, I like your idea of "value mining", which seems similar to Amy's online folder of fun--this is something I tend to do in my real life, sometimes less so online. Not to say that I don't have a pretty broad range of bloggers and resources I read. I do. It's more do I read people who see the world differently from me? They don't tend to be the blogs I put into my reader, although I think I need to do that more often.

Tom, as always very insightful comments and good advice. I'll be pulling your thoughts into my next post. :-)

Sue, when I was thinking about this idea of homophily, you definitely did NOT come to mind. I know that you go all over the place (I see your comments everywhere) and I can see you bridging between many different communities. We need more people like you.

Emma and Joel, I think you're right that although we may encounter greater diversity in our face-to-face contacts, that doesn't mean that these will change our thinking in any way. In fact, we might be more dismissive because at least with a blog post, I'm likely to read through to the end before dismissing an idea, whereas if someone says it to me, I'm likely to be formulating my response, rather than listening.

Thanks everyone--more fodder for my thinking here. . .

Hi Michele, Am really enjoying this conversation and i agree with elements of what everyone says. On the one hand, grouping together with like-minded people is a good thing because it creates communities of practice, so I cannot see how that makes you dumb. But on the other hand, I can see how that restricts the opportunity for broadening one's horizons.

In the 'real world' my professional group (midwives) is very insular - they have had to be because of their fight to maintain professional credibility and autonomy - they group together as a form of professional protection. But the Internet has allowed me to interact and learn from people in a way that never would have happened in a face-to-face context. Unfortunately, time restricts how much 'breaking out' I am able to do.

My thought is that as people move into the social media sphere they are making a cultural adjustment. The arena is new to many and it's vast and oft overwhelming. The reaction to this is to seek out that which is familiar - - - similar phenomena occur with study abroad students, international students and scholars and ex-pats ( or anyone adjusting to a new culture).

I only have to look at how I'm developing my facebook friends list for an example. I started with people from high school and people I see everyday and moved from there -- slowly.

As for blogs and websites, I check a couple of different things a couple of times a week: your blog, http://christinekane.com/blog, http://lifeinla.typepad.com/chicago/, www.nytimes.com, and www.tmz.com

From these I follow links to what I find of interest and then bookmark them and share them. I don't usually end up where I thought I was going when I start to follow links, but I sure find a wealth of knowledge. My bookmarks list keeps growing and I've attempted to read both Spanish and German blogs. I've also had some good email discussions about articles and I try and share with more than just the original person whom I thought would be interested.

I also find that I get a lot of recommendations from friends about other blogs to check out. Since my friends have interests quite different from mine this broadens what I read and learn about. Having a wonderful group of friends who are from different countries, living in different countries and/or interested/working in different sectors works well keep me from being stuck in a land of homophily.

It's consciousness of action and the reflection on action that will move bloggers and blog readers to grow and push a number of them to delve deeper into topics they're not experts on or look at them with a different lens.

I have to agree with some of the folks in this conversation. It isn't as big a problem as some might think. I cannot believe that the stimulation, interactivity and communication we're engaged in ... no matter how niche our areas may be ... makes us 'more stupid.' No way! Sniffing out like-mindeds is what we social creatures do I reckon.
PS Love the word: homophily

Michele, thanks for picking up on this theme. What a tapestry we're all weaving together, eh?

I'm taking some time to pull together more thoughts on this topic -- so rather than try to jam them incoherently into a comment here, I'll post another comment when I have a new post up on Contentious.com about this.

This part of your post really resonated with me: "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?"

Yeah, that totally happens for me too. And I know it happens to many journalists -- which is an even greater concern. Tom Haskins also raised some good points -- that homophily is not all bad, and it doesn't always lead to narrowmindedness.

Ethan Zuckerman (who started this whole theme, anyway, recently posted an excellent essay: "Homophily, serendipity, xenophilia." http://urltea.com/34jd

He explains xenophilia as: ". There are people in the world who are genuinely fascinated by the very breadth, complexity and difference of the world. Many of these people are “third culture kids”, people who were raised in one country but “from” another country. Others are people who live, work or love outside their home cultures. My colleagues at Global Voices are, for the most part, people identifiable as xenophiles. I think there’s an argument to be made that xenophiles are uniquely equipped to thrive in a globalizing world and that cultivating xenophilia should be both a personal priority and an aspect of a nation’s educational and diplomatic strategy."

I've got a gut feeling we're on to something here...

- Amy Gahran

Michele, I use many of the applications you mention here. I have to admit that I agree with much that you say about ‘homophily’ - that people tend to seek like-minded people. But as many have already said, this is just what people do. Like it or not, it is a social phenomenon.

What you seem to be saying is that I should go out of my way to seek people who are different from me, perhaps in a big way. Wow! That could be scary. It could have consequences that I won’t elaborate on here.

Let’s assume that I don’t have the Internet with all its technological wizardry. Instead of using Amazon or Netflix I go to my local bookstore or DVD store. Instead of Facebook, LinkedIn or MySpace I frequent local social clubs join local committees or perhaps indulge in organised clubbing with my friends and their friends (I’d find this difficult incidentally as many of my ‘friends’ on my social network service site actually live overseas!) All these things I do, by the way – forget about the Internet.

Frankly, I like to choose the friends I have. I like to choose the people I hang out with. It’s not done for me by technology any more than technology picks the bookstores and clubs that I go to or committees I join. I can’t honestly figure out how the technology is supposed to encouraging me to restrict my zone of interaction with people any more than it did before the technology came into being.

You mention blogs related to personal interests that I might have. I have some of those, but I also take part in a whole raft of clubs, committees and socially organised activities because of those same interests.

You also ask “do (I) have anything in there that doesn't match what (I) already think?” I find this a really odd question. Isn’t this what having interests is all about? Do you really want me to chuck my interests and passions in favour of pursuing a whole range of paths that I’m not interested in? It’s like quitting my political party affiliations and joining another party, any party as long as it isn’t like the one I’m in at the moment, expecting me to dive in there with verve and enthusiasm for something I’m not politically aligned with.

No Michelle, I’m afraid your suggestions are a bit wide. For as dumb as I may be, I don’t think that I’ve become any dummer during the years since I started using web technology. If anything, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some very interesting people that I certainly would not have been able to meet if it weren’t for the technology.

internet doesn't make one stupid. there's a lot of things you can do out of it. and its like having a cellphone. one is up to having one

Michele, thanks for bringing up this most important topic regarding social media. Two things come to mind:

First, homophily is part of our human makeup. That goes for real life as well as virtual connections.

Second, there is no doubt that stretching that natural tendency and facilitating cross-pollination amongst people from different cultures and disciplines, can bear many fruit.

Where I go with this? Do indulge our homophiliac yearnings either through real or virtual networks, AND give people opportunities to cross-pollinate between those various networks, through various linkage strategies.

Thanks again, for a great discussion thread.


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