Consuming the same media as your peers is what social scientists call homophily, better known as ‘birds of a feather flock together’. Ethan Zuckerman, blogger and internet theorist, has been trying to fight this instinct online. He offers techniques for surprising and challenging readers with news that they didn't know they wanted.
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BOB GARFIELD: Rushmore Drive and BlackPlanet hope to capitalize on the collective interests of a particular group on the principle of "birds of a feature flock together," what social scientists call homophily. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Behaviorists say it's human nature, but Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, observes that homophily is amplified on the Net, and that ought to be cause for concern.
In an age where TV news offers more and more opinion and less and less international coverage, the Internet would seem to be the logical place to find diverse views, surprising voices and news we need. But, he says, we don't find that because we don't know where to look, and mostly because we prefer to flock. ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I'm a little worried about homophily because I think homophily has the danger of making us stupid. And I mean that quite literally. I think that in a digital media world where we have the ability to pick and choose whatever it is that we want to look at, we've gone from a supply problem to a demand problem.
In the age of broadcast media, where we had four television networks and, you know, most cities had one or two major newspapers, you were trusting that media outlet to give you a wide view of the world, to let you know about stories you might not otherwise find, and there was a really big, strong editorial function there.
And one of my questions is how do we build an Internet that doesn't just show us what we want to see but also does a pretty good job of showing us what we need to see? BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what are the ways that have been devised on the Internet to deal with this demand problem, by which you mean getting people to want to demand [LAUGHING] things that are outside of their comfort zone? ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: My friend Danah Boyd, who studies Internet and sociology, believes that probably the most powerful force on the Internet is boredom. The Internet briefly made Moldovan pop music enormously successful because there was this wonderful YouTube video of a young man singing along to a Moldovan song called Dragostea din tei. And so some number of Internet users found out much more about Moldovan pop music than they ever intended to.
There's a lot of sites emerging out there that try to help you stumble upon sites that you might not have been looking for but are likely to be interesting to you. One, of course, is called StumbledUpon. Another is called Digg. [BROOKE LAUGHS] Another's called Reddit.
What most of these sites work on is a pretty simple principle. The people who are reading the site will suggest links that they think will be interesting to the audience. People will vote them up or down. If they make it to the top, you are likely to see it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yes, but as you've written, the users of those sites are usually birds of a feather. It's not going to get us out of our box. ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: So one possibility is if you feel like you're in a box, it would be to find a different way to find a different flock. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What if we don't know we're in a box? ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: [LAUGHS] I think this is a place where there's still a need for editors. Mainstream journalists have a lot of responsibility, to a greater extent than ever before, to get voices from the developing world and tie them into stories that we pay attention to in this country. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But more than ever before, we have the opportunity to ignore those voices, to never encounter them, to never hear an opinion with which we don't agree or a fact that doesn't stand in accordance with our opinions.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I think we're at a break point. A lot of people realize that there's something broken in the media environment. The problem is we're not yet in a position to pass the baton onto participatory media on the Internet because we haven't really thought through these issues yet.
Could we build a news portal where 80 percent of the stuff is pointed to by people like you and 20 percent pointed to by people very much unlike you? It would be interesting if we could get sort of our different echo chambers to agree to have sort of an exchange program. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, how do you try to lure people into paying attention? You wrote that you have a short list of arguments – actually you have three appeals – to guilt, to fear and to greed.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I think greed is probably the strongest of the three. Greed is what I use when I get on stage and talk to venture capitalists, and I say, you know, did you know there's an emerging middle class in Africa and you know nothing about their consumer behavior? If you would only go out and read the blogs of these middle-class Africans who are involved in the tech industry, you might learn something about how you would sell a car or a computer or a bottle of beer to this new emerging market.
That one, at least, is somewhat positive. I think the other two are actually a little bit scarier. The fear one essentially says, hey, remember Central Asia? That's where some of those guys who blew up the Twin Towers on 9/11 trained. Shouldn't we continue paying some attention to that? And while that's a very real argument, it sets people looking for information with a very specific tone.
I also think guilt is a very dangerous one. I think a lot of people right now are paying attention to the Sudan and Darfur out of residual guilt over Rwanda. And while it's better than not paying any attention at all, it's a very specific, very narrow, very focused form of attention.
My hope is that there's another form of attention, which I refer to as xenophilia, basically this idea that what's most fascinating and what's most exciting out there is the diversity of the world, the diversity of perspectives. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's funny, but whenever I talk to deep thinkers about the Internet, you probe down a little and they always end up with these appeals to human nature. And [LAUGHS] it makes me sad. ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Well, I mean, there's the sort of Soylent Green response to this, right, which is to say, the Internet is people, because obviously it is. All these networks can do is bring us together. That's all they do. And what that means is that our behavior, the good and the bad, can get amplified within these networks.
When we're talking about the problem of homophily, this isn't an Internet problem. This is a human problem. BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Ethan, thank you very much. ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Oh, it was my pleasure, Brooke. Thanks for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ethan Zuckerman is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and he blogs at My Heart's in Accra at Ethanzuckerman.com.