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Homophily and the Internet

Published on
5 Aug 2010
Written by
Scott A. Hale

I recently had the opportunity to meet Ethan Zuckerman while he was on a visit to Oxford for TED where he gave a talk on Listening to global voices. Ethan has been doing amazing work on trying to promote more global interaction through Global Voices. In preparation for our meeting, I read a few past blog posts and found this one on: homophily, serendipity, and xenophilia. While it’s a couple of years old, I think these terms are still important today and what to add to the discussion.

In particular, reading some of the linked sources made me ask the question of how to do you defeat homophily without promoting homogenization?

(Homophily, btw, is a nifty sociological term “meaning love of the same” and commonly expressed by the adage “birds of a feather flock together.”)

Ethan links to an article in the Washington Post, which states:
“Ever larger numbers of people seem to be sealing themselves off in worlds where everyone thinks the way they do. No Walter Cronkite figure unites audiences today, the sociologist noted. We can now choose cable stations, magazines and blogs that see the world exactly as we do.”

The elimination of competition for limited newspaper space, limited radio frequencies, and limited TV channels means many more diverse information sources can co-exist. This decreases the likelihood of a single, unifying figure like Walter Cronkie, but this is a good thing in that on a macro (perhaps national level) more diverse media is being consumed.

The challenge is that we tend to consume information similar to that of our friends, and personalized recommender systems promote this. So, while the national diversity of media may have increased, each person is less likely to individually be exposed to this diversity.

The challenge then is how to increase an individual’s media consumption without homogenizing media consumption on a macro level. Personalized recommender systems don’t increase a individual’s diversity of media, while on the other hand, a generic (non-personalized) recommender system (like a return to limited channel TV) would give everyone the same recommendations and lead to a national decrease in media diversity.

If we think technology fuels homophily, could it be only so because it also propels heteroization? A paper by Daniel Lemire, Stephen Downes, and Sébastien Paquet looks at diversity in social networks and recommender systems. The paper argues dense social networks with a long tail are best at promoting diversity, but that elements of randomness might also be incorporated into recommender systems. Another path to diversity might be “representation” where groups of similar users are clustered and given only one vote for the group regardless of its size (thing US Senate). Ultimately, however, the paper concludes “users should avoid relying on a single aggregation strategy to filter content.”

At present, the best way to increase individual and national diversity is to change user behavior. As Ethan says in his TED talk. We need to cultivate xenophilia (love the foreign) and bridge figures who like musical DJ’s can curate foreign news and draw our interest to it. Other systems, the Internet, traditional media, education, too need to be examined for ways to increase cross-cultural and cross-lingual communication.

Ethan’s talk from TED is now online:

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