I’m thousands of blog entries behind in my RSS and not doing much better on email, but i just re-read a (semi-)recent thread on echo-chambers in light of David Weinberger’s Salon article. As much as i really respect the people involved in this conversation, i’m having a hard time with the content. And the reason is homophily.
Let me back up. [I know that i’m missing key parts of the conversation so i’d be stoked if anyone would be willing to include them in the comments.] It seems to me that the primary question is whether or not the Dean campaign failed because the people involved were only talking to other people of like minds and didn’t realize the larger context. The notion of an echo-chamber is that people only communicate with people like them and their conversation is irrelevant to the outside world. Some argue that this is prevalent on blogs.
The thread seems to have posed lots of questions, but most of the “answers” are either personal anecdotes, tangents about the implications, or a childish “blogs are echo-chambers!” | “no they’re not!” Of course, these kinds of conversations make my little brain go !research! Unfortunately, i don’t have time to research the answer, but i do have some theoretical underpinnings that i think are quite relevant to the discussion.
In social networks literature, there’s a concept called homophily. The basic idea is that birds of a feather stick together. There’s a good reason for this. The more we have in common with someone, the more points of context, the more capable they are of supporting us. We are more likely to gain social and emotional support from people who are awefully similar to us. Our strong ties are usually very similar to us.
One approach for considering the echo-chamber question would be to analyze the strength of relationships between bloggers. If we’re going to talk about a notion of “community,” we have to think about what the focus of the community is. Often, the focus involves activity. Some might argue that blogging is enough of an activity to link the community together. But if this were the case, there would be a random probability that any blogger would link to any other blogger. This is not the case. My hunch would be that a blogger is more likely to link to other bloggers who share multiple points of context in common. This does not mean that two people have to share political values in common, but this is a completely valid context to share. Furthermore, the more contexts two people have in common, the more likely that they will know each other. Thus, it is more likely for two like-minded bloggers to know each other than two diverse people.
Part of the problem with having this discussion surround blogging is that blogging is relatively new. Only a few years ago, there were very few bloggers. As such, i would suspect that political views were less important because the fact that the person was a blogger (a rare thing) made them interesting enough to connect to. As there are more bloggers, blogging doesn’t end up being as strong a context point as before.
Another theorist that i think plays into this discussion is Manuel Castells. As an urban sociologist, Castells is interested in the consequences of gated communities. He suggests that, when given the option, people will retreat to “safe” communities of people exactly like them. Thus, he suggests that it is the responsibility of urban planners to construct environments that force people to engage with heterogeneous populations. He is worried that the interweb gives people the choice and thus they will form homophilous environments.
The problem with this conversation is that it’s breaking down into SHOULD and DO. Certainly, people have the option to read anything that they want, connect to dissimilar people. But do they? That’s why it’s a research question, not a question that bloggers can simply answer by considering personal habits. In fact, the conversation is kinda reminiscent of one that came out during anti-racist movements. Sociological fact: most white people hang out with mostly other white people. Individually, everyone immediately screams not me! and starts listing off all of the people of color that they know. Individuals never want to see themselves as non-diverse, but the desire to be seen in a positive light does not make someone diverse.
Weinberger asked “Behind the echo chamber controversy lies the question of whether the Internet causes people to solidify their beliefs or to diversify them. Does it open people up or shut them down?”
I don’t know that i’d agree with the structure of his question because i don’t think that this question is the primary force behind the controversy. One of the biggest motivators for a lot of people to get online in the 90s was to find people like them. The goal wasn’t to solidify or to diversity, but to feel validated. Suggesting solidification/diversification implies that the primary motivation behind engaging online is to participate in purposeful dialogue, to be educated and educate. Frankly, i don’t believe this to be true. I think that people interact to be social and that discussions of politics are a key way to be social and to be validated.
Weinberger goes on to call the “echo chamber meme” destructive and misinformed. Don’t get me wrong: i don’t think that it has been proven and i think that there are significant consequences for digital designers if it is accurate. But i’m also not convinced that it’s simply an ill-formed meme. I think that it’s a very valid research question. What i’m worried about is that people have too much invested in it being (in)accurate.
Update: Since this post is now the top post in a Google search for ‘homophily’ i feel the need to directly reference a canonical essay on homophily since this blog entry is by no means authoritative. Instead, read:
McPherson, Miller; Lynn Smith-Lovin; James Cook. 2001. “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks.” Annual Review of Sociology 27: 415-444.