Homophily Happens – a Homogeneous Web?

Posted on November 30, 2008
Filed Under community, CSO, Future, Musings, social viral, Social Web, Strategy | Comments Off on Homophily Happens – a Homogeneous Web?

Will online social networking make us all the same?

Or, will we elect to stay in mostly same-thinking groups?  As we join up in communities online, the homophily aspect could kick in.  Homophily is defined as the tendency to be friends with others who are similar, and is described futher in this New York Times article.

Birds of a feather flock together… True?  Looks like it.  As stated in this 2001 paper “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks” the tendency shown is to connect with people who are like you: “Similarity breeds connection”.  If you’ve stumbled upon a MySpace.com profile that is for an artist in Los Angeles, you will likely see this tendancy at work as you see their friends and the interactions. The University of Wolverhampton in England determined in a study that homophily exists on MySpace (Homophily in Myspace – MS Word format).

Geese of a feather on the snowy Potomac River in Washington DC

Geese of a feather on the snowy Potomac River in Washington DC

In looking how a phenomenon, concept, or media can “go viral”, the virality aspect has to allow it travel along different groups, each with may have their own different patterns of interaction.

And political alignments can seemingly prove this “fact” – that birds of a feather flock together.  As has been seen increasingly online, getting the message out directly to small homogenous social groups has value, especially as it usually comes from a member of the group.

But this same social group limits your options. As you meet and interact with new people, via your social networks, they will pretty much be the same as your old friends.  Exceptions to this trend possibly include on-the-job interactions, networking for a new job, and ad hoc activities such as searching for a lost pet or person.

For support towards goals, this similarity within a group can be a positive aspect.  For a marketing campaign, it is both a hindrance and a help.  People resist ideas or concepts that come from outside their group, but if it is shared within a group it is helped by the peer-to-peer approvals.

As pointed out in this O’Reilly blog post & comments, social networking sites encourage you after you sign up to invite all of your friends to join (or at least load them up as contacts).  Is homophilus behavior a feature or a bug?  How about in one’s own life?

This depends on whether a person wants change, and to some extent if they are open to conflict.  Engaging with people who think and act differently from you often means conflict.

On sites such as Twitter, we can search and see different and opposing views to our own, but odds are that we are not following or friending these people, on average.  On a philosophical note, then, each can blame themselves for limiting their choices of friends.

In the trend of people to find their news via online social activities, the news we get there is filtered by our preference in friends.  The videos we get pointed to, the memes we share… they are going to vary among friend-lines.  This inbreeding of content perhaps goes contrary to the common belief that we are expanding our horizons by interacting with hundreds or thousands of friends online.  This trend may be also relevant to how mainstream news covers mostly the same events.

The people who become online web celebrities cross the boundaries of smaller social groups… or may define larger groups as they show commonalities.  They connect to us on levels that transcend simple small-group connections, and sometimes even transcend language barriers, and satisfy people’s yearning to be part of something bigger.  Even as we also apparently yearn to part of something similar.

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