Ethan Zuckerman on Homophily, Serendipity, and Xenophilia

From an extensive blog discussion by Ethan Zuckerman, this touches a key problematic of the internet, how to avoid that “like seeks like” and therefore shows no interest in the other, even though he is more present on the internet than he/she was ever before. Finding out alternative voices has turned from a problem of supply (media control), to a problem of demand (i.e. our own interest).

The text is much longer, very much worth reading in full, and has many references worth exploring.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Rather than encountering people through the filter of professional media, perhaps we can reach them directly through their blogs, videos, photos. (This isn’t always possible – the digital divide is very real, and I’d argue that many of the arguments I made about digital exclusion in “Making Room for the Third World in the Second Superpower” still hold.) We no longer need to wait for CNN to connect us with people and stories in Bangladesh or Brazil – the explosion of personal publishing means that someone is likely speaking up in those corners of the world.

The rise of the read/write web turns the problem of paying attention to the rest of the world from a supply to a demand problem. You can find Brazilian, Bengali and Bulgarian voices, but only if you bother looking for them, stumble across them or are led to them by creators and curators of content.

This new “digital disorder”, as David Weinberger describes it, requires new systems to make navigation possible. Some systems rely on trusted guides, editors who we trust to help us sort through the mess. (Think BoingBoing and the crew who man that ship, or any prominent site capable of driving traffic to smaller sites.) Others rely on collective intelligence of their users to suggest stories – Digg, Reddit, etc.

The systems that rely on network effects, as Torkinton points out, are deeply affected by homophily. (So, as it turns out, are the systems based on human editors.) Some of these systems ask you what stories you liked, then find others who liked those stories and recommend their favorite stories – this is a technique called “collaborative filtering“, and it’s become increasingly popular as a paradigm for navigating a complex, choice-rich world of media. You can see how CF could be a homophily trap – tell Netflix that you liked the film “Sneakers” and it will find you other people who liked “Sneakers” (most of whom are, like you, ageing computer geeks), and suggest other films they liked. The recommendations you’ll receive are likely to be good, but are less likely to be surprising and challenging.

Systems simpler than CF fall victim to homophily traps as well. A site like Reddit attracts a lot of young men who work technical jobs and lean to the left politically – rely on Redditors for your news and you’re unlikely to encounter many stories from the developing world, from the political right, from non-technical disciplines. (Yes, I’m writing in huge, sweeping generalizations here – comments pointing out a single Africa story on Digg to refute this aren’t especially helpful.)

Why is homophily a trap? Cass Sunstein argues that it can polarize us – in Infotopia, he cites a study he helped conduct that demonstrates that deliberation of political issues with like-minded people leads subjects to a more politically polarized stance. From this, and from a close reading of political polarization in the blogosphere, he argues that the Internet may make it easier for us to share information with likeminded individuals, and that in a political context, this could be a bad thing.

I’ve made a much less persuasive and elegant argument summarized by the aphorism “Homophily can make you stupid.” My argument, basically, is that it’s possible to miss huge trends, changes and opportunities by talking solely to people who agree with you. I use myself as an exemplar of this sort of stupidity – I found myself so baffled by the results of the 2004 US Presidential election that I invited Republicans to come have a beer with me to explain what they were thinking. (One did. Thanks, Ian.) If homophily is capable of misleading Americans about local politics, just imagine what we fail to understand about Egypt, Pakistan and Fiji by virtue of not consuming media recommended by people from those places?

Writing from an engineering perspective, Torkinton suggests that authors of social software need to first decide whether homophily is a feature or a bug. If the goal of an application is to broaden your information universe, homophily may be a bug, and designers may want to include “less relevant but also likely to be interesting” recommendations. He recommends framing this as a feature, searching for ways to deliver “serendipity”, which he defines as “pleasantly surprising the user”.

(”Serendipity” is a fascinating term. It was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, a prolific British novelist and correspondent. He referenced a Persian fairytale, The Three Princes of Serendip, referring to a set of characters who “were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” While that definition – and, indeed, the story cited – don’t precisely map to current usage of the term, Richard Boyle offers a long essay tracing the coinage of the term and feels that Walpole’s invention was the definitive first use. “Serendip”, incidently, was a Persian name for Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Always nice to discover that a concept like serendipity has global origins.)

Serendipity is harder than it sounds. It’s one thing to surprise someone – it’s another to surprise someone helpfully. It’s even hard to define – lately I’ve been arguing with David Weinberger about whether certain examples constitute serendipity. Looking on a library shelf for a particular title, discovering it isn’t particularly interesting, but discovering the exact book you need nearby? (Fortunate, but also a consequence of the power of a topical organizational system.) Finding a newspaper story you never would have searched for but found very useful because the editors put it on the bottom of the front page, in what Dan Gillmor has called “the serendipity box”? (Again, very fortunate, but hardly surprising that editors would drive readers to less-read content.)

The reason serendipity is important to consider is that it’s one of the few affirmative ways to get people to pay attention to news from the developing world. I’ve argued that there’s three basic paths to get people to pay attention to, say, Somalia: – Fear: There’s no government there, and there are lots of angry Muslims. If we don’t pay attention, we’re ignoring the next hotbed of terrorism – Guilt: People are dying there. If things get out of hand, you might see Ethiopia slaughtering large numbers of Somali. Let’s not ignore another Rwandan genocide. – Greed/Opportunity: Sure, it’s a mess, but did you know that Somali Telecom is making a fortune in the north of the country?

These arguments always put me in the mind of Melissa Rossi’s book, “What Every American Should Know About the Rest of the World“, a book which seems to be designed solely for people who are embarrased at cocktail parties when countries they can’t find on a map become topics of conversation. My guess is that avoiding embarrasment is not an especially powerful motivator for engaging with international issues and opinions.

I’ve argued for some time that a different model exists – xenophilia. There are people in the world who are genuinely fascinated by the very breadth, complexity and difference of the world. Many of these people are “third culture kids”, people who were raised in one country but “from” another country. Others are people who live, work or love outside their home cultures. My colleagues at Global Voices are, for the most part, people identifiable as xenophiles. I think there’s an argument to be made that xenophiles are uniquely equipped to thrive in a globalizing world and that cultivating xenophilia should be both a personal priority and an aspect of a nation’s educational and diplomatic strategy.

But xenophilia’s hard. It’s one thing to say to oneself, “I really should pay attention to matters in Somalia” and another thing to do it. Joi Ito has talked about “the caring problem“, the difficulty of really caring enough about people in another part of the world to engage with news from that community. At Berkman, we’ve been discussing the problem in terms of broccoli and chocolate – you know you should eat broccoli because it’s good for you, but there’s just so much tasty chocolate out there!

Serendipity breaks the chocolate/broccoli paradigm – it gives you broccoli as you’re searching for chocolate, adn it turns out to be just the right thing at the moment. It doesn’t require you to identify as a global citizen – it just means you’re following your interest in sumo wrestling and find yourself discovering a debate about Japanese identity and Asian politics.”

1 Comment Ethan Zuckerman on Homophily, Serendipity, and Xenophilia

  1. Zbigniew Lukasiak

    Friends don’t let friends become monothematic – perhaps we should send things to our friends that we know they would not read if not a bit pushed. The collaboratife filtering does not need to be based on only our temporal moods with immediate feedback – we can entrust our filters to push some messages to us.

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