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.



bjk 07.20.10 at 8:00 pm

Who cares? Truly this ranks right up there with the non-problems.


ejh 07.20.10 at 8:43 pm

this is why we should all follow strangers on Twitter. We naturally lead manicured lives

This guy needs to fuck off, doesn’t he?


stand 07.20.10 at 8:43 pm

I think it would be interesting if someone offered some kind of pen pal service for twitter or Facebook or one of these social networks. Sign up and get assigned someone to follow. The service provider could allow you to pick someone that shares interests but should also allow you to have a random person.


qb 07.20.10 at 9:27 pm

A similar attempt at self-improvement gone patronizingly wrong.


Henry 07.20.10 at 9:34 pm

oh god – that is in fact the post that Lehrer links through to, which I had not read (stopping with Lehrer’s own argument). Don’t think it invalidates the underlying point (that it is good and enlightening to read people writing and thinking from very different perspectives), but it does point to the ways in which this can go horribly, horribly wrong if these people are treated as funny/quaint/weird inhabitants of some human zoo.


Phil 07.20.10 at 10:22 pm

I started blogging in 2005, after nine years on Usenet and various mailing lists. I looked at a few LiveJournal posts but was never tempted to subscribe – what I liked about blogging was the impersonal space it gave you to develop your ideas, as something between a commonplace book and a public performance. (It’s not unlike Usenet in that respect, although without the built-in sense of community.) LJ seemed like a step backwards or possibly sideways, to a warm but strange realm where people talked at length about how they were feeling and what they’d had for tea, and other people then commented on it – a bit like blogging, but with a sense of community added in and with the performance and the ideas taken out.

I have never, ever understood the appeal of Twitter; Joel Johnson’s little tracking experiment was clearly creepy and weird, but it seems to me only slightly more creepy and weird than the whole idea of “following” “people”.

Coming back to the original bleg, here’s a blog I discovered recently: Luke Roelofs’ Majestic Equality. If you’re an anarchist, a Marxist or a Spinozist, and you like starting from first principles, this blog is a must-read. Even if you aren’t and/or don’t, it’s worth a look.


y81 07.20.10 at 10:48 pm

I don’t think the internet is that homophily-producing. If not for the internet, I wouldn’t have any contact at all with left/liberal academics, and most of them wouldn’t have any contact with conservative upper-middle-class urban professionals (except when encountering parents and alumni, which isn’t that big a part of most professors’ lives).


Dr. Hilarius 07.20.10 at 11:47 pm

On-line contacts with strangers pales when compared to sex with strangers.


Salient 07.21.10 at 1:19 am

I have never, ever understood the appeal of Twitter

It… doesn’t require much leap of the imagination. Twitter lets you text everyone who might care about what you would text them, simultaneously. It helps with to coordinate a meeting of several friends over cellphone, or letting every friend and relative you have know that you’re okay following that tornado near your house. If you have a short message to deliver to everyone you know, and you wouldn’t really care if strangers overheard it, then Twitter’s perfect.

I ‘follow’ my mom on Twitter. About once a week she tweets updates about the turkeys in her backyard and the cats in her kitchen. Sure beats receiving long tendentious emails about it. (Beats the alternative for me and for her both — her hands get tired writing out long emails with the obligatory salutation and questions about how I’m getting on and winding-up conclusion and so on. And I trust not much needs to be said about how coordinating our schedules for a phone call just to talk about the turkeys and cats is not necessarily socially optimal for either of us.)


parsimon 07.21.10 at 1:29 am

Agreed that following people on Twitter is probably not the ideal way to expand one’s horizons online. Surely one has (say) non-academic, non-political interests. There are groups and organizations out there absorbed in these other things. Follow them for a bit, find the blogs of their more interesting contributors. It does require lurking for a while, but for those who’ve become accustomed to blogging and commenting, lurking and listening — to a different idiom, a different range of concerns — for a change is highly recommended.

This does seem a non-problem.


garymar 07.21.10 at 1:33 am

Technology is irrelevant if you don’t want to expose yourself to new ideas. Long before twitter and even the internet I kept myself open by browsing the shelves at my local bookstore or library. The librarians themselves were a great source of information too.


vivian 07.21.10 at 2:18 am

I’m surprised. Never tried twitter (clicked through once or twice) but like all the facebook updates, it feels like the equivalent of sitting on the porch, chatting with the neighbors. It’s a great way to have shallow interactions with people, keep the lines of communication open, but not a place to discuss ideas or share really valuable information. So how could you decide whether to start a more meaningful relationship just based on the tweets? (kids today, mumble mumble)


piglet 07.21.10 at 2:39 am

I can’t relate to that account of a coffee shop where “everyone in line was wearing the exact same uniform”. I don’t know any coffee shops like that. And how about trying a different place? If he really wants interaction with strangers, why not meet them in person in a physical place. It always amazes me when the internet is supposed to compensate for boring social lives.


noen 07.21.10 at 3:01 am

@ y81 — But you’re not *really* that different if you think about it are you? So I think your experience here isn’t as heterophilic as you might believe.

“Technology is irrelevant if you don’t want to expose yourself to new ideas.” — True but not really the question. Which is, how to find those parts of cyberspace of which you are currently unaware but would find interesting if you did know about them.

A couple of ideas, one might be to surf foreign language web sites for a lang that you are unfamiliar with. Computer translation is imperfect but it can give your a rough idea. The other would be to pick a subject area that you *know* you disagree with strongly and try to find where you do agree.

Finally, I’d like to propose Internet Opposite Day. Everyone must switch sides for one day and argue for the other side. Not going to happen but… it’s an idea.


duck-billed placelot 07.21.10 at 4:05 am

For a nuanced take on ethics/morality/Christianity (particularly how Public Evangelism is so often really, really bad in those realms) and incredibly delightful fisking of the Left Behind novels, a few pages at a time: Slacktavist

For scribbly, charming comics with a historical, feminist, and Canadian flare: Hark, A Vagrant!

And an idea, instead of a link – pick a local-politics blog for a place you don’t know. Bonus if it’s a different country/system of government.

More suggestions, please! I am always looking for better filters for the massive amount of info floating around, and the CT commentariat’s preferences seem like a great treasure trove of well-written awesome.


Matt McIrvin 07.21.10 at 4:17 am

There was a guy I kept on my LiveJournal friends list for a long time just because his posts seemed to be a window into an entirely alien intellectual universe (an ultraconservative religious one of surpassing emotional intensity), and I didn’t want to be the kind of person who stopped reading someone’s posts just because he disagreed with them. Then I realized that reading them was just making me incredibly angry. It wasn’t worth it.


Substance McGravitas 07.21.10 at 4:25 am

I read Telepathic Ed.



yeliabmit 07.21.10 at 5:47 am

Majestic Equality and Telepathic Ed are both interesting in their own (almost opposite) ways. Thanks for posting them.


David 07.21.10 at 7:38 am

Assuming everyone already reads Marginal Revolution and Making Light …

Rod Dreher’s blog, soon to move home, grew out of his Crunchy Con thesis. There’s an amount of Islamoscepticism and Gay Marriage derangement, but Dreher isn’t afraid to criticise allies on the Right either, and you get the sense that he’s thinking things through as he writes and isn’t afraid to change his mind. Commentators have about the same sense/insanity ratio as Crooked Timber. http://blog.beliefnet.com/roddreher/

The Spectator’s group blog is surprisingly enjoyable, as long as you don’t read the comments, which are marginally worse that CiF or the Telegraph. http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/

On An Overgrown Path is run by a slightly curmudgeonly former record company exec, whose King Charles’s Hat is Radio 3. The remit is classical music, but it ranges widely into other areas of culture. I’ve never regretted clicking on any of his links or buying and recommended CDs. http://www.overgrownpath.com/

Another Nickel In The Machine serves up meticulously-researched slices of obscure London social history. (At the top at the moment is the Miss World Competition of 1970, with Bob Hope and the Angry Brigade.) It’s hard to see how this would work in any medium other than the blog. http://www.nickelinthemachine.com/


Zora 07.21.10 at 7:55 am

I read Outlook India to find out what New Delhi intellectuals are thinking. Then I read the Rediff movies section to find out what Bollywood stars are doing and what new movies will be screening. Then I read Sepia Mutiny to find out what South Asian expatriates and second-gen think of it all.

Sepia Mutiny might be the most accessible of the three. And the most surprising. Where else would I find a link to Rihanna’s Rude Boy with bhangra drumming added?

Punjabian di shaan vakhri


sg 07.21.10 at 8:50 am

I get around this problem by doing kickboxing.

Also, by talking to people I don’t know, when the opportunity arises.


Don Gomez 07.21.10 at 10:32 am

„…that it is good and enlightening to read people writing and thinking from very different perspectives“

That is the sound of Richard Sennetts ‚Fall of Public Man‘ and I agree with the underlying premise that a person is better of with some stimulus from outside of his/her encapsulated sphere of perception.


Fr. 07.21.10 at 1:28 pm

American-centrism and/or Lehrer’s naïveté baffles me. Really, buying cappuccino is a thing done in White-middle-bourgeois/higher-ed-degree/third-sector-job neighbourhoods? Coffee is #1 on the Stuff that White People Like list. Even pot smokers and Soc 101 students (granted, both populations are likely to overlap) know this.

I say American-centric because if you live in Europe, this simply happens less. The income range of my Parisian street probably goes from people earning close to nothing to people earning well over the median French wage, and education attainment ranges from none (Koranic school) to PhD. I have spent weeks, months or years in Berlin, London, Budapest, Edinburgh and Lisbon, and have never observed the high levels of social segregation that result in caricatural homophily as described here (perhaps this indicates that I am not a member of the upper-class). European urban geography might play a role here (I have not checked my anecdotal evidence against spatial indices of urban segregation).

As for picking up sources from different horizons, how about speaking more than one language, something overlooked both by Lehrer and by the person he links to? Using Google Translate to follow a few blogs in Japanese and Russian is fairly easy. Is that weak heterophily? Sure is. Try strong heterophily: a majority of human beings do not seem to blog or tweet (breaking news!), and some of them live right after the corner (or further ahead if you live in the US, as far as I can tell).


piglet 07.21.10 at 4:06 pm

“And an idea, instead of a link – pick a local-politics blog for a place you don’t know. Bonus if it’s a different country/system of government.”

Leme ask you, do you follow local-politics blogs for places that you *do* know? All I’m saying is, the suggestion that one needs to go to exotic places to be exposed to unfamiliar people or ideas seems kind of preposterous to me.


qb 07.21.10 at 6:42 pm

I say American-centric because if you live in Europe, this simply happens less. The income range of my Parisian street … Berlin, London, Budapest, Edinburgh and Lisbon…”

So Eurocentric! I wonder how Asian and African countries fare on the social segregation scale.


y81 07.21.10 at 7:42 pm

“The income range of my Parisian street probably goes from people earning close to nothing to people earning well over the median French wage, and education attainment ranges from none (Koranic school) to PhD.”

This is just an urban phenomenon. If you walk the right direction (west) from my Central Park West apartment, you’ll encounter quite a bit of economic diversity. But if you live in Hamden, or the Berkeley hills, it would be very different. You wouldn’t encounter, in any feasible amount of walking, anyone with an income much below that of a college professor. And depending on your route driving to campus, you might not see a single person who was poor by necessity (as opposed to a poor grad student).


JEF 07.21.10 at 8:43 pm

This idea (in the original post) is pretty similar to an old social network analysis theory by Mark Granovetter, “Strength of Weak Ties” (Mark Granovetter http://smg.media.mit.edu/classes/library/granovetter.weak.ties/granovetter.html), which argues that you’re most likely to find valuable contacts/ good information from acquaintances, or friends of your closest friends, who have a different primary network than you do. There’s all sorts of debate over it, attempts to prove or disprove it quantitatively, etc. Actually pretty interesting.


pseud tweedledumb 07.21.10 at 9:05 pm

“The slut should have picked his quarry more carefully!” Roared the victor in a mocking baritone growl, as he wiped his dripping blade on the prostrate form, and returned it to its scabbard.

“The fool should have shown more prudence, however you shall rue your actions while rotting in the pits.” Stated one of the sprawled soldier’s comrades.

Grignr’s hand began to remove his blade from its leather housing, but retarded the motion in face of the blades waving before his face.

“Dismiss your hand from the hilt, barbarbian, or you shall find a foot of steel sheathed in your gizzard.”

Grignr weighed his position observing his plight, where-upon he took the soldier’s advice as the only logical choice. To attempt to hack his way from his present predicament could only warrant certain death. He was of no mind to bring upon his own demise if an alternate path presented itself. The will to necessitate his life forced him to yield to the superior force in hopes of a moment of carlessness later upon the part of his captors in which he could effect a more plausible means of escape.

“You may steady your arms, I will go without a struggle.”

“Your decision is a wise one, yet perhaps you would have been better off had you forced death,” the soldier’s mouth wrinkled to a sadistic grin of knowing mirth as he prodded his prisoner on with his sword point.

After an indiscriminate period of marching through slinking alleyways and dim moonlighted streets the procession confronted a massive seraglio. The palace area was surrounded by an iron grating, with a lush garden upon all sides.


Zora 07.21.10 at 10:08 pm

Lithe opaque nose.


Henry 07.21.10 at 10:16 pm

JEF – I originally had a bit about “weak ties” in there, but then thought that the ties in this argument were a little too far from the original Granovetter argument for my comfort.


duck-billed placelot 07.21.10 at 10:52 pm

@piglet-#24 Actually, I do follow local politics blogs for several places I know. But having recently moved to Canada, I’m suddenly not politically savvy, locally. I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider most of Canada ‘exotic’. And even if I had meant that everyone should pick a Nepalese Maoist Communist blog, what’s wrong with that? Is exposure to new/different viewpoints less valuable if it’s not your physical neighbor? Especially since, for American readers, the opposition has a very loud megaphone while a significant portion of the liberal internet spends their time debunking the opposition’s talking points; we already spend a lot of time with local differing views.

Also, does anyone know of any good Nepalese Maoist Communist blogs? Because now that’s all I want to read.


garymar 07.21.10 at 10:54 pm

I wish I knew Grignr better. His social networks seem so different from mine!

Does he blog, I wonder? Do they have internet access in the pits of Xgrnxyr?


garymar 07.21.10 at 10:58 pm

And I would dearly love to march through slinking alleyways and confront a seraglio. That would broaden my horizons!


bread & roses 07.22.10 at 3:44 am

I think I’ve seen Language Log cited on here enough to assume it isn’t a new suggestion.
second Slacktivist
Ta-Nehisi Coates
OKcupid’s blog


Zora 07.23.10 at 7:02 am

I’m not sure if this is heterophily or not, coz Cosma Shalizi also reads this blog and I found it through James Nicoll.

Hyperbole and a Half

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