Monday, August 24, 2009

Homophily, Group Think, and the Internet


Homophily is a fancy word for the human equivalent of birds of a feather flock together.
The past few months have been one of exploration for me—within and without. As I forayed into social media, social networking, informal learning, knowledge sharing, connecting, collaborating—topics that fascinate me—I found myself connecting with people around the world. People hailing from different countries, continents, cultures with singularly different world views. However, some similarities brought us together—these are shared passions, interests, professions, and the willingness to learn and explore and connect.
Technology (read Twitter, FB, LinkedIn, etc.) helped me to find such people. Our human tendency to bond, to create communities, to be part of and accepted by a group(s) is all supported by technology today. My world suddenly seemed to have opened up from my very desktop and this world was populated by people who thought and felt the way I did. I was in bliss till I came across the term Homophily and its connotations. I call this serendipity.
Three posts and a paragraph from a book gave me a jolt. The following question raced through my mind: Was I expanding my horizon or just looking for verification of my existing beliefs, prejudices and world views so that I could rest in complacency in my comfort zone. So that I would not need to transform myself, challenge myself, but be happy with incremental learning and think of that as self growth.
I retraced the means through which I connected—content. Be these in the form of posts, links to posts, tweets…they are all different forms of content that attracted me because of the shared passions displayed.
I will quote the passages that jolted me out of this self-induced bliss and made me reflect.
1. 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. (Read the remaining post for a wonderful exposition on how Homophily is actually encouraged by technology. Even Amazon suggests books we would like to read based on our current choice.) http://michelemartin.typepad.com/thebambooprojectblog//2008/04/why-the-interne.html
2. 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… Search in the future needs to lead us to people, to places, to voices. My hope is that in the future we get over homophily and we start looking for really productive serendipity…” http://www.contentious.com/2008/04/20/breaking-out-of-the-echo-chamber/

3. From Wisdom of the Crowds: The wisdom of crowds comes not from the consensus decision of the group, but from the aggregation of the ideas/thoughts/decisions of each individual in the group. Quoted in “One of us is smarter than all of us” : http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2005/03/one_of_us_iisi_.html

Some questions I am still struggling to find answers to:

  1. Are the aggregation and collective wisdom we are talking about only of “like-minded people”?

  2. Does such an aggregation contain conflicting voices, different world views, radically different representations of situations?

  3. Are we trying to “deliberately” find disparate voices so that our understanding can be more holistic, rounded?

  4. Is “mass collaboration” also reinforcing the feeling of Us vs. Other?

  5. Is “Wisdom of the Crowd” only the dominant voices we are hearing, the privileged with access to the Internet? What about the remaining silent part of the world? How do we gather that wisdom?


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