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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Homophily of Professional Conferences

(reposted from centrality)

Ever notice how many professional conferences tend to lack diversity (in ideas, methodologies, demographics)? Ah, homophily. Ever wonder why this might be problematic? Or why it might stifle innovation and creativity?

sitting in the boardroom / the i’m-so-bored room
listening to the suits / talk about their world
they can make straight lines / out of almost anything
except for the line / of my upper lip when it curls — Ani

Following from network analysis, we know that birds of a feather stick together and that they invite more like minded birds to join them. And we also know that networks play a key role in innovation and that disparate networks are critical to creativity. Let’s keep those two bits in mind when we think about conferences.

Professional conferences are fundamentally social networking events; don’t let anyone convince you that people are there to listen to lectures. We attend to connect with the people that we know and meet new people who might inspire us (or hire us). Professional conferences are also primarily word-of-mouth events, particularly the smaller ones. You go because your colleagues are going or because someone you know is going and you track their whereabouts. Additionally, speakers are frequently chosen by organizers who they know; they hope these speakers will attract a particular (paying) crowd. Well, by and large, we are friends with, listen to and know of with people like us, making conferences painfully homogeneous affairs.

Unfortunately, even the most conscientious organizers tend to have difficult diversifying their audience because they are under pressure to make certain (paying) audiences attend. Attendees also magnify the homophily problem by choosing events based on their friends. Likewise, companies attend if they’re guaranteed their target audience (for either marketing or hiring). If homophily works so well for these groups, why should we try to diversify?

While we go to conferences to see our friends, the opportunity to learn and really think from a new perspective is still there. We all learn from new people and yet we rarely leave a conference having met more than a handful of people. But try going to a different country – it’s a mind-opening experience. You see your own culture from a new lens. You come back to your home environment and you bring with you ideas based on observations abroad. There’s something very powerful about really moving oneself out of one’s comfort zone, out of the norms.

Well, the same thing can occur at conferences. The more diverse the audience, the more potential for really new ideas because you can engage with more disparate world views. People of different theoretical, methodological, ethnic, religious, political, cultural backgrounds, genders, races, socio-economic classes, lifestyles, perspectives… Diversity matters for more than some PC idea of what’s right. Diversity matters because it helps us see the world in new perspective and engage with development that supports a diverse world. It fundamentally helps innovation.

Those looking to hire at conferences should also care about diversity. If you meet someone at a conference who’s exactly like you, what do they bring to your company? Most companies want innovative minds. Well, you don’t innovate best when in a room full of people like you; you innovate best when you get to play with a lot of different people because you take their throw-away ideas, remix them with yours and voila, new idea!

Organizers want to have a diverse audience because their event will be remembered as the place where someone’s new idea came from, where the ideal employee was hired. Of course, it’s also tricky because over time, as excited attendees return, they too will end up being homogeneous, at least in ideas/perspective. This happens everywhere – events/companies/schools that were once a site of innovation become stale because it’s difficult to keep things fresh.

Of course, it’s also difficult for newcomers to attend a conference that is so solidified in its attendees. It makes it hard to penetrate, to be a newcomer. The amount of effort it requires to attend as a stranger, to learn the cultural values that bonds attendees… it is much higher. Yet, so are the potential rewards. But not if the attendees have so much centrality that they do not wish to meet newcomers.

So, what do we do about it? How do we support diversity in order to evolve? How do we help integrate new people to meet the consistent attendee? Conference organizers design programs; how can they design the event as a whole? There is an art to event organizing and it is not solely one of choosing good topics. But it is definitely a tricky social network problem. You want there to be just enough but not too much centrality. You also want to use the topics and common interests to bond people, not segregate them. You want to help people who will only really meet 2-3 people to meet people most unlike them but who they will still have enough in common to have reasons to engage. What else? What else can social network theory tell us about conference organizing to support innovation through diversity?

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1 comment to Homophily of Professional Conferences

  • Reading this post brought to mind polycrystalline minerals, like granite. Each conference is a crystal. Within the crystal is great clarity, strength, and cohesion. But it is at the interfaces between crystals that you find the most interesting combinations, the innovations. To rephrase your question in this motif, ‘how do we bring more fractures into our professional conferences?’

    But each of us contains fractures within our identities. If you map the attendees at a conference (professional or otherwise) you will find some people who attend all the same events, all year round. But most people probably attend a variety of different events. They bring diversity into the event, even if they all have something in common. We are each at the boundaries between many crystals — inside ourselves. We orient those facets to match the people we are with at a given time, but we don’t necessarily match them deep down.

    If you had some sort of unique identifiers for people at a set of conferences, you could map the overlap to ensure you were bringing enough diversity of ideas into your event.

    Another thing to do is hold your event just before or after a bigger, more popular event, so that people who would not normally come to your conference might stumble upon it. And don’t let your door-staff be too vigilant. Sometimes uninvited guests can offer more than you expect.