Is your social network making you stupid?

Ever heard of homophily? If not, there’s a good chance that you’re in a social network where more of the same isn’t exactly sparking your neural pathways or making you smarter. In fact famed internet intellectual Ethan Zuckerman, with tongue firmly in cheek, would go as far as to say that homophily is making you dumber.

“I’m over-simplifying and being a bit cheeky when I say that the internet is making us stupid. However what I mean by it, in a serious way, is that homophily has a tendency to isolate us from certain pieces of information. At the same time it tends to fool us into believing that we have a complete picture of things when we don’t,” said Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. The co-founder of Global Voices Online, Zuckerman also sits on the boards of the Kenyan-based Ushahidi, Ghana’s PenPlusBytes and the US programs board of the Open Society Institute.

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In short homophily is easily explained by that time-worn cliché “birds of a feather flock together”. But it’s in the subtleties of Zuckerman’s explanation and his application of the theory to social networks that the whole idea of homophily becomes more than intriguing.

“It is my deep concern that as we start using social networks more and more as tools that help us discover new information, we are in danger of spending too much time with people who we already have a great deal in common with. When you join Facebook the first thing it does is to try very hard to help you find as many of your friends as possible,” Zuckerman told Memeburn from his home in Lanesboro, Massachusetts.

By getting to know what university you went to, what companies you’ve worked for, and by interrogating your email contacts, social networks like Facebook compile and present “like” lists in order to ensure you think that the community you’ve joined is wonderful, because you know so many people who are a part of it.

Zuckerman maintains that this tendency toward more of the same is both the blessing, but mostly the curse, of networks like Facebook. “One of the reasons that places like Facebook are so popular and work so well, is because you can find people you know on it, but there’s the problem. When you get your news primarily from your friends you tend to get a biased view. If your friends are all interested in the same kinds of news, you end up with this subtle but very powerful message that it’s the most important news and that everyone believes the same thing, because you’re getting a lot of the same information from different people.”

The result of these networks of uniformity is that if you don’t have a diverse group of friends you can find yourself in what Zuckerman calls an echo chamber. “Everything you hear is reassuring, familiar and comfortable. Everyone seems to be in agreement with you, but you are actually not hearing the dissenting voices because you aren’t being exposed to them,” he said, adding: “One of the things that I am very worried about in the digital age is that it is easier and easier to put yourself in a situation where you can be surrounded by these like minded voices. It is not that people are bad, or lazy, or racist or classist. It is just that there is a fundamental tendency for people to flock with very similar people.”

The notion of homophily isn’t a new one and has been well documented by sociologists including Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton who formulated the concept after a study of friendships in small American towns.

Merton and Lazarsfeld’s field experience showed that the people they studied were far more likely to be friends with people of the same race, the same religion, the same economic class, and the same level of education. “People weren’t necessarily conscious of these biases, but just found a way to flock to people who looked similar to them,” explained Zuckerman.

“The difference in the digital age is that your friends now govern, to a large degree, what you know, and that potentially is very, very dangerous.” Zuckerman said this is different from the real world when you may have two people with a different circle of friends, but who both read the Mail & Guardian and therefore have certain shared knowledge. “We are getting to the point where there’s evidence that there’s less and less of that shared knowledge, and a lot more information is coming through social networks and if we have social networks that do not interact with diversity, that’s where we start getting into real trouble.”

“At a time when the internet has made it possible for so many more people to have a voice and we need to be listening more widely to people who are speaking up, our filters may be making it easier for us only to listen to a few people. So we end up in a situation where we don’t have as broad a view of the world as we need, and we tend to think that our view is broader than it is”.

Innovation is a key aspect where variance helps and more of the same hinders. “I would argue that a lot of innovation nowadays comes from bringing ideas from one part of the world into another part of the world”.

Zuckerman studies mobile phones closely and said a lot of innovation around this technology was happening in Africa. “There’s been almost no innovation around mobile money in the US and the reason for that is that we all have credit cards, they work reasonably well, and there hasn’t been a great deal of incentive to move money through phone systems”. In Kenya however, things are different and credit is uncommon. In what is largely a cash economy people need to move money over distances and this has heralded mobile payment systems like M-PESA.

“You are taking a technology that was largely developed in Europe and the US, and bringing it into a very different context with very different problems. What you get out of it are some tremendously innovative solutions that change the nature of commerce and communication,” said Zuckerman. He said that to foster innovation one needs to take a technology that does “one thing in one place” into a completely new environment and to see what happens when you have that encounter. However he stressed that it was important to be open about sharing the results of the experiment.

“People who end up being the most powerful and valuable are people who are capable of crossing between countries and cultures, and who say: ‘Well isn’t this interesting? Here’s something that works here, let’s see how it works in another place. Here’s a problem that suggests different types of solutions, so lets see what happens when we put a novel technology on it.'”

Think of the world’s top technologists, internet gurus and social media thinkers and you’ll know exactly what he means. Want to move from being part of the herd that’s being stagnated by homophily, into the heart of an innovation zone? Embrace the new, be open to diversity and experiment with technology in new places and spaces. Then share what you’ve learned.

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