Weak Heterophily

by Henry Farrell on July 20, 2010

“Jonah Lehrer”:http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/07/twitter_strangers.php has an interesting post on the heuristic benefits of mixing it up by making online social contact with complete strangers.

bq. this is why we should all follow strangers on Twitter. We naturally lead manicured lives, so that our favorite blogs and writers and friends all look and think and sound a lot like us. (While waiting in line for my cappuccino this weekend, I was ready to punch myself in the face, as I realized that everyone in line was wearing the exact same uniform: artfully frayed jeans, quirky printed t-shirts, flannel shirts, messy hair, etc. And we were all staring at the same gadget, and probably reading the same damn website. In other words, our pose of idiosyncratic uniqueness was a big charade. Self-loathing alert!) While this strategy might make life a bit more comfortable – strangers can say such strange things – it also means that our cliches of free-association get reinforced. We start thinking in ever more constricted ways. And this is why following someone unexpected on Twitter can be a small step towards a more open mind. Because not everybody reacts to the same thing in the same way. Sometimes, it takes a confederate in an experiment to remind us of that. And sometimes, all it takes is a stranger on the internet, exposing us to a new way of thinking about God, Detroit and the Kardashians.

Of course, one of the issues with the Internet is that it creates strong tendencies towards homophily (see “Tom Slee”:http://whimsley.typepad.com/whimsley/2009/03/online-monoculture-and-the-end-of-the-niche.html and “Ethan Zuckerman”:http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/04/25/homophily-serendipity-xenophilia/ ), which it takes active effort to circumvent. I’ve noticed this especially strongly over the past few months, because I’ve been using Google Reader, and trying out the feeds of more or less everyone who follows “my own one”:http://www.google.com/reader/shared/henry.farrell. Unsurprisingly given this selection process, there are strong tendencies towards homophily – I see a lot of stuff in other people’s feed that I’ve already seen myself. I’ve stopped following some people because their tastes and reading inclinations are _too_ similar to mine to be very useful. But heterophily has its limits too – when others’ interests are too radically dissimilar from my own, I’m probably not going to want to follow them. One possible search strategy to balance out these competing imperatives would be to look at the unshared choices of people who share most of my (and other CT readers’ interests). Here, the underlying theory would be that if someone reads most of the same material as you (and other readers), they are probably tolerably good proxies for your own set of tastes. However, the most valuable information that you can get from them is the sources that they read, but that you do not, since these sources are much more likely than those of a random stranger to be (a) genuinely interesting to you, but (b) hitherto unknown. NB that this is only weakly heterophilous – it won’t usually expose you to material that is genuinely different to your usual reading tastes. But it can inject at least some variation into them. So – if you have nominations for blogs, feeds or Twitter accounts (not that I follow Twitter – but other CT readers do) that are (a) interesting and (b) not part of the ‘shared set’ that you might expect most CT readers to know about, feel free to nominate in comments.