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Dealing with homophily

Today O’Reilly Radar has a post about homophily, the tendency to congregate with people with the same interests as your own. The article explains how application developers can enable their users to move beyond homophily and make serendipitous discoveries.

I find that weblogs are a vaccine against homophily. Most people have plenty of widely varied interests, and unless we’re very careful, mingling with people with whom we share an interest will expose us to plenty of other information that we maybe aren’t so interested in. I encounter the same effect when reading weblogs. I may read a weblog because it’s got useful information about Ruby on Rails, but what I wind up finding is a new band I want to listen to or a way to manage my time more effectively.

In general, I think that homophily is overblown as a syndrome that affects people on the Internet. If anything, I find that there’s too much surprising new stuff on the web to investigate rather than too little. The separate discussion about how to account for it in your applications is interesting, though, and I encourage you to read it.

6 Comments

  1. I agree that with regard to subjects like music and restaurants – things that a) aren’t that important, and b) people interested in them tend to be motivated to expand their repertoire – the Web tends to expand people’s experience.

    I don’t agree with you when it comes to subjects that people are highly invested in, and in which they have a high investment in being right. Politics, for an obvious example. My experience suggests that in this area, most people tend to read what they already agree with more than they actively try to challenge their own belief system, or even seek out other points of view.

    Keep in mind too, that blog readers may visit a site specifically for one or two kinds of posts, and deliberately ignore the rest. I ignore your posts on programming, for example, because I’m not a programmer. I can easily imagine someone visiting my site for the posts on books and simply discounting anything displaying a political point of view.

    I also think you and I are more active Web users than most. When I talk to more mainstream people, I am always surprised at how few hours a week they spend on the Web. These people don’t have time to seek out a wide variety of perspectives on very many topics, just the one or two they are most interested in.

    So, in important matters, I still think homophily is a serious danger.

  2. I pretty much gotta agree with Rebecca Blood. She pretty much nails it.

    I do however think that homophily is already greatly endangering our society….particularly in politics, where various cynical “system-gamers” have been busily offering up cheap, logically-invalid, yet emotionally weighty* rationalizations for various bits of odious behavior.

    *meant in the “ass-brain” sense…ie: appealling to peoples’ desire for revenge, need for conforming identities, quietly held prejudices, etc.—crappy “fringe” beliefs are no longer necessarily diluted by social norms but can now flourish as people become, ironically, isolated in a vast sea of mostly dubious information.

  3. My experience suggests that in this area, most people tend to read what they already agree with more than they actively try to challenge their own belief system, or even seek out other points of view.

    Rebecca – we have disagreed about this before. I’m fast approaching middle age, broadly educated, multiple degrees, own hundreds and hundreds of books, have lived in multiple states, visited multiple continents, have wide-ranging interests, have had extensive conversations with people ranging from factory workers on disability to CEOs of major U.S. corporations – exactly how much further do I need to educate myself on certain issues that I’ve come to conclusions on?

    The example I tend to use is abortion politics — For years I read hugely prolific newsgroups (ha – good pun), several books, the law itself, all kinds of stuff about this issue – I haven’t seen a new argument that I hadn’t encountered before in I don’t know how long – I should continue to seek out the opposing POVs why, again? (Not to say that I don’t – I actually have a few extremist types in my semi-regular rotation because from an anthropological perspective I find the mindset fascinating, but that’s a separate issue stemming from my own curiousity..)

    I am not arguing, by the way, that deliberately avoiding other points of view is a good thing to do (and I don’t do that myself) – but sometimes, and I can be quite confident when I say this, I’ve learned enough to come to a conclusion or to be comfortable with a value choice. There is only so much time and so many hours in the day. Now, a key facet of my own personality type (INTJ/scientist) is to be crystal clear in my own mind about what I know, what I don’t know, and how I came to know what I know – so on any given issue I can quickly articulate for you whether I feel like I’ve given the topic due diligence or whether I’m going with my gut or something in-between – but at some point, surely it’s ok to stop reading all possible points of view and to have legitimately and in a grounded way staked out one’s own position on an issue? As long as one remains open to new analyses, facts, or arguments, one shouldn’t be required to continually beat oneself over the head with arguments that one has been convinced are invalid just as a way to demonstrate tolerance..

    You also, in your arguments about this, disregard the class of people for which their political awakening came about because of seeking out and responding to things that “challenged their entire belief system.” How many transformational enlightenments should one person be expected to undergo in a lifetime?

  4. Hi Medley :),

    I was responding to Rafe’s argument that surfing the Web automatically exposes one to a wide variety of POVs. My argument is that people tend not to seek out or be open to opposing POVs on certain subjects. So, he says it’s impossible not to be exposed to new POVs while on the Web, I say it’s easy to ideologically seclude yourself.

    You are arguing a different point, that once someone has made up their mind on an issue, it’s okay for them to stop challenging that belief. So those are actually different things.

    As a rule, I think it’s healthy to challenge your own biases now and again, just as exercise if nothing else. But of course I agree that once you’ve thought about a subject thoroughly, generally you don’t need to revisit that thing and review it from the foundations, day in, and day out.

    I was thinking of more general ideological slants, and especially the tendency people have to confirmation bias. So, not so much individual issues, but more general things: the Republicans are always right, and the Democrats are all crooks, or environmentalism is all anti-business, or businesses are all anti-environment. That kind of thing.

    I find it hard to read any liberal blogs and believe there’s an honest bone in any Republican body. I find the same disconnect on the conservative blogs, where everything the Republicans/Administration does is automatically assumed to probably be all right (maybe all the evidence hasn’t come out yet! or maybe there were also Democrats involved!) and everything the Democrats do is obviously suspect.

    In any case, I notice a change in my own thinking when I’m constantly surrounded by a group of people who all have the same mindset. More importantly, I notice that I tend to feel that most other people feel the way I do about things.

    Now, whatever your political beliefs, that’s not realistic, and it’s not even a very practical way to go about understanding how to change the political landscape. So perhaps I’m saying that homophily tends to breed extremism, and knee-jerk reactions rather than nuanced examinations of the world.

    It’s like the argument about whether television programming affects people’s thinking and behavior. Does it actually cause them to go out and shoot people up? No, that’s ridiculous. Does it have absolutely no effect on how they see and respond to the world? Equally ridiculous, why do companies spend millions of dollars a month on commercials?

  5. In terms of closely held ideas that are primarily formed by world view, I would have to agree that most of us tend towards homophily. But, I suspect that is generally true in life as a whole. Most of our friends, family and other sources of information and discussion support our view, or we don’t interact on the topic or use the resource.

    But I find a broad expanse of interests on the net, and am constantly finding new avenues of thought and new ideas. My utilization may be a bit different because I am of the retired persuasion, and I have more time to pursue new things.

    Although trained in the hard sciences, I have always found a variety of subjects of interest. Some of my happiest (though not always productive) intellectual memories are the result of chasing serendipitous entanglements of other arts, fields and disciplines in my pursuits. In the past (preWeb) it was much more difficult to follow a thread that piqued my interest. Now, fulfillment is just a click or a search away.

  6. So, he says it’s impossible not to be exposed to new POVs while on the Web, I say it’s easy to ideologically seclude yourself.

    I know – and you make this argument, or variations, frequently. And my issue with it is, I think, three-fold.

    1) While it may be “easy” to ideologically seclude yourself – yes, the technology and feed-readers allow it – how many people actually do so? And, as I have long argued, I don’t think that one can tell how ideologically-secluded someone is simply because their personal weblog is ideologically consistent. (Personally, there are numerous weblogs I read but decline to link to or put in a blogroll – not everyone uses the weblog as the vehicle for evidence of their intellectual breadth of exposure. In addition, there are plenty of topics I know and read a lot about, but mention very infrequently on my own weblog. You seem to want to use your sense that people only argue for particular points of view on their weblogs as evidence that they’re ignorant of or avoiding other points of view. That’s faulty logic.)

    2) Weblogs and the Internet in general are so far from the worst offenders in this realm. Turn on the 3 or 4 big cable news channels. Add in the broadcast news. Talk about confirmation bias, there. That’s what the majority of Americans are exposed to – and even setting aside partisan ideology – they present an extremely narrow take on things and implicitly adopt a host of unarticulated assumptions that simply and repeatedly wash over the populace day after day after day. Weblogs are not the danger here. Information technology is an enabler against that homogenization. Whatever cliques you perceive in the weblog community (if that term even applies anymore) are vastly overshadowed by the relentless, insidious message management of global media corporations.

    3) In your quest to promote “nuanced examinations” of the world – which in principle I support – by encouraging people to constantly be seeking out opposing and alternative points of view before coming to conclusions, you set yourself (and those who would follow your advice to its own obvious extremes) to be easily exploited. This can happen in two ways: A) It is easy to send one down ratholes of endless research as a distraction. Have you thought about this? That? The other thing? More machiavellian actors in the intellectual sphere do this constantly by throwing up clouds of irrelevancies and forcing people who want to demonstrate that they’re tolerant and, of course, considering every possible viewpoint to consider or rebut them all (“Shape of earth; opinions differ.”) B) Let’s make the simplifying assumption that there are two and only two extremes to a policy matter. Those same actors should simply stake out the most extreme pole as their position, and force those trying to be more intellectually accommodating and tolerant to move towards that extreme. The machiavellian types should simply keep doing this repeatedly, and eventually the entire domain of discourse has shifted dramatically towards one pole.

    In short, and with huge amounts of respect and affection, I think your position – at least as I’ve been able to glean it – on these sorts of issues has challenges with respect to data (1 above), impacts (2), and outcomes (3). There are subtler issues, I have with it, too – but those are 3 major ones.

    (Rafe – sorry to hijack your comment-space; I will take this to my own blog one of these days real soon now…)

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