My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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echo-chambers and homophily

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.

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30 comments to echo-chambers and homophily

  • There’s not much around about blogging and homophily yet but there’s a good lit review about whether people look for information that conflicts with their world view:
    Sears, D. O. and J. L. Freedman (1967). “Selective Exposure to Information: A Critical Review.” Public Opinion Quarterly 31(2): 194-213
    which I found via this debate:
    http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR26.3/iyengar.html

    P.S.
    > Only a few years ago, there were very few bloggers

    I suggest that there are still very few bloggers – at least few that blog regularly, compared with the Internet population and therefore I hope to study their sociological characteristics and figure out what makes people blog…

  • Echo Chambers and Blogging

    A recent round of discussion has been going on about the “echo” effect of the blogging world and other social phenomena. A great deal of this discussion spawned from the Internet efforts of the Howard Dean campaign. For anyone unsure…

  • I don’t know how this question can be settled, which makes me think there’s something wrong with the question. I take that as the trend of your thinking, too.

    My hunch is that your hunch is right. Most of us are more likely to link to other bloggers with whom we generally agree or share some values. But I don’t see what that tells us. Consider conversations on a group blogs…an even tighter relationship than in mutually linked blogs. These bloggers share lots of values and ideas, but their conversations don’t simply validate one another. They approach questions differently, they extend one another’s ideas, etc., all within a fundamental “echoing” agreement. So, what does the fact that they’re associated tell us? And, especially, what does that tell about the value question that provoked this entire thread?

    I think what’s wrong with the question is what you point to: Our bad-faith insistence that we’re open-minded and in respectful touch with those who fundamentally disagree with us (the analog to listing all one’s Black friends, in your example). And this, it seems to me (= I’m guessing) goes back to our bad-faith Rationalist ideas about how we form beliefs.

    Maybe that’s not what’s wrong with the question. But something is. I think.

  • A couple of additional points to consider about the nature of sameness and differentness online:

    1. The Internet is full of weird people. Like science fiction, technology and RPGs, the Internet since its earliest days has attracted people who didn’t fit in with the local norm, who sought community online — the alt. heirarchy is like a roadmap of locally socially unacceptable hobbies, practices and beliefs that migrated to the net. This has its pluses and its minuses, but the net always framed itself as a place where you could come and woo your muse of the odd with other oddfellows, so no surprise, really, that it’s full of people facing inwards, talking about their own heterodoxy.

    2. The Internet makes you weird. The ability to browse all the possible kinks, find the ones that tickles your pink, and dive in, free from socially normative disapprobation, is a fast ticket to becoming One Of Us. No one is *really* a “mundane,” but many people button themselves up and pass — even to themselves. The net’s seductive lure is to join the kink SIG that corresponds to your inner Imp of the Perverse and shut out everyone who would have you know that you’re a perv for being *really* into, you know, rubber or chess or Klingons.

  • Homophily/Autophily

    Had I world enough and time, I’d spend it linking extensively to the discussions going on over the dread meme “echo chamber” and the amusingly neoAristotelian way it’s being used to turn noses up at the Dean campaign these days….

  • Echoing some danah’s thoughts on the echo chamber

    At risk of being labeled an echochamberist, I’m going to agree that danah has a good point in her post…

  • Echoing some echo chamber thoughts

    At risk of being labeled an echochamberist, I’m going to agree that danah has a good point in her post…

  • Lucas

    “The consumer’s compulsion to imitate is a truly infantile need, conditioned by all the aspects of his fundamental dispossession. As Gabel puts it in describing a quite different level of pathology, ‘the abnormal need for representation compensates for an agonizing feeling of being at the margin of existence.'”

    — Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

  • Echoing some echo chamber thoughts

    At risk of being labeled an echochamberist, I’m going to agree that danah has a good point in her post…

  • Echoing some echo chamber thoughts

    At risk of being labeled an echochamberist, I’m going to agree that danah has a good point in her post…

  • It’s hard to define what “difference of opinion” might mean in this context. Thomas Kuhn, in his book Structure Of A Scientific Revolution, suggested that scientists were unable to have a debate with someone who believed in a fundamentally different paradigm. Thus, they need to agree on certain basics before they can have a serious disagreement. If two biologists both believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution, then they can a knock down drag out fight about whether evolution operates on the whole body (as Stephen Jay Gould said) or whether it operates on individual genes (as Richard Dawkins said). The disagreement can go on for years and be fought out in dozens of magazine essays and and television interviews. Emotions can get involved and personal animosity can develop. And yet this is a disagreement that can only arise between two people who agree with one another about the basics of evolution. So if Dawkins and Gould were both online, and they both read each other’s blogs, would you characterize them as bloggers who agreed with each other, or disagreed with each other? Their argument is famous, and it is there on the surface, and it is easy to see, yet someone from another paradigm, say a Creationist for instance, looks at the two men and feels they are exactly alike.

    So if any of you researchers studied this question in a formal way, I think your results would be heavily influenced simply by how you define “difference of opinion.”

  • Echoing some echo chamber thoughts

    At risk of being labeled an echochamberist, I’m going to agree that danah has a good point in her post…

  • Echoing some echo chamber thoughts

    At risk of being labeled an echochamberist, I’m going to agree that danah has a good point in her post…

  • Echoing some echo chamber thoughts

    At risk of being labeled an echochamberist, I’m going to agree that danah has a good point in her post…

  • Look at me, I’m dancin’!

    *dances*

    Do you like my dancing? It’s for you. I’m dancing for you!

    *dances*

  • http://www.monkeymagic.net/blog/archives/2004_03_01.html#000133

    Echo Chambers are a good thing, and direct descendants of the Invisible College concept. Traditionally, these have been used to help us develop new, balanced thinking. Rather than “nuking them”, as Dave Winer suggests, shouldn’t the emphasis be on ma…

  • Echo Chamber Argument

    Are weblogs just closed systems of people that agree with eachother.

  • Echo Chamber Argument

    Are weblogs just closed systems of people that agree with eachother?

  • Busyblog

    All work and no blog means Jack has been a busy project deadlined bee. Normal service should be resuming. Once I get over my Feed Demon phobia….

  • [ Pseudo Echo ]

    Danah Boyd discusses the peculiar nature of the Web, blogging, and the people who blog about blogging in this piece entitiled, “Echo-Chambers and Homophily.” In it, she cites a Feb. 20th Salon article by David Weinberger that purports to shatter…

  • [ Pseudo Echo ]

    Danah Boyd discusses the peculiar nature of the Web, blogging, and the people who blog about blogging in this piece entitiled, “Echo-Chambers and Homophily.” In it, she cites a Feb. 20th Salon article by David Weinberger that purports to shatter…

  • [ Pseudo Echo ]

    From OK/Cancel Danah Boyd discusses the peculiar nature of the Web, blogging, and the people who blog about blogging in this piece entitiled, “Echo-Chambers and Homophily.” In it, she cites a Feb. 20th Salon article by David Weinberger that…

  • [ Pseudo Echo ]

    From Panel from “Ridiculously Easy,” OK/Cancel Danah Boyd discusses the peculiar nature of the Web, blogging, and the people who blog about blogging in this piece entitiled, “Echo-Chambers and Homophily.” In it, she cites a Feb. 20th Salon article…

  • [ Pseudo Echo ]

    From Panel from “Ridiculously Easy,” OK/Cancel Danah Boyd discusses the peculiar nature of the Web, blogging, and the people who blog about blogging in this piece entitiled, “Echo-Chambers and Homophily.” In it, she cites a Feb. 20th Salon article…

  • [ Pseudo Echo ]

    Panel from “Ridiculously Easy,” OK/Cancel Danah Boyd discusses the peculiar nature of the Web, blogging, and the people who blog about blogging in this piece entitiled, “Echo-Chambers and Homophily.” In it, she cites a Feb. 20th Salon article by…

  • maybe what the real change will be in real life you vote on the party that will give you freedom to do this and that(becuse you disagree whit the other ppl/party/oganzaion/specail intrest and you know you isnt in power to make the ruls ypou want so ppl choose freedom so can fallowe ther owen ruls just like it will be intresting to see was the oposed of gated comuntys will be what will happen to the creative open minded mix of imigrants poor ppl whittrash and drug user in a place wher gated comuntys have taken the rest?

  • maybe what the real change will be in real life you vote on the party that will give you freedom to do this and that(becuse you disagree whit the other ppl/party/oganzaion/specail intrest and you know you isnt in power to make the ruls ypou want so ppl choose freedom so can fallowe ther owen ruls just like it will be intresting to see was the oposed of gated comuntys will be what will happen to the creative open minded mix of imigrants poor ppl whittrash and drug user in a place wher gated comuntys have taken the rest?

  • maybe what the real change will be in real life you vote on the party that will give you freedom to do this and that(becuse you disagree whit the other ppl/party/oganzaion/specail intrest and you know you isnt in power to make the ruls ypou want so ppl choose freedom so can fallowe ther owen ruls just like it will be intresting to see was the oposed of gated comuntys will be what will happen to the creative open minded mix of imigrants poor ppl whittrash and drug user in a place wher gated comuntys have taken the rest?

  • maybe what the real change will be in real life you vote on the party that will give you freedom to do this and that(becuse you disagree whit the other ppl/party/oganzaion/specail intrest and you know you isnt in power to make the ruls ypou want so ppl choose freedom so can fallowe ther owen ruls just like it will be intresting to see was the oposed of gated comuntys will be what will happen to the creative open minded mix of imigrants poor ppl whittrash and drug user in a place wher gated comuntys have taken the rest?