The Pleasure Principle

Friday, May 02, 2008


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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Comments [4]

Andrew from San Francisco

Interesting. I wouldn't say homophily is all bad; we need simply to find a balance. Fact is, people will always band into groups based on common interests, traits, backgrounds, etc. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, and to a certain extent homophily is what allows us to network and get things done, rather than meander through life as a few billion disconnected, aimless individuals.

Web users only need to step back every once in a while and ask themselves whether they're engaging enough alternative viewpoints, expressions and creations during their online time. Be proactive and open up your mind now and then.

May. 12 2008 03:02 PM
James Bedell from Astoria, NY

I run a blog called, dedicated to fostering respectful debate and trying to debate two sides of every issue we explore. Encouraging readership has been incredibly difficult. When we've taken liberal tilts or occasionally villified a particular politician or policy we can see a measurable uptick (or when we post baby-dropping videos).

My point here is I'm sure if we had launched a classic liberal blog, or a classic conservative blog we could have gained massive readership more quickly as simply becoming part of the echo chamber. Does anyone have any ideas on how to engage readers in thoughtful debate?

May. 06 2008 12:33 PM
James Wallace from Manhattan, NY

1: A distinction
Your guest’s misuse of "homophily" weakens his point. Homophily is about social gathering, not info consumption. Cass Sunstein’s 2001 book covered “information stovepiping”, making more apt, prescient reference to the growing homogeneity of web ideas.
2: Everything will be fine
The segment’s "woe is us" tone ignores human curiosity. Few will stovepipe their media consumption simply because they can. How many of us confine our TV watching to only one sitcom, our food to only ice cream, and our music to only jazz or Gregorian chants (no offense to monks, Thelonius or otherwise)? As long as we have basic human curiosity, we don't need to worry about the internet making us "more stupid".
3: People who read "People"
The way we expose ourselves to information will also mitigate the stovepiping problem.: 1) Most people start their web experience through a general interest portal (like MSN, Yahoo, etc.), with a variety of information. 2) Internet users often search and find unexpected results. 3) Though people can screen their reading choices based on tone and theme, reading requires us to read before we fully know the content. Even buying a copy of People magazine can expose the reader to more than just celebrity news. 4) And, never underestimate plain-old original thought.
The echo chamber is not the permanent, unavoidable bogey man the technorati would have us believe. No one is one dimensional. The web won't make us so.

May. 04 2008 12:48 PM
Jake Barton from New York City

Ethan Zuckerman ends his interview by saying that homophily isn't an internet problem, it's a human problem, but that is misstating the role that the shape of the internet and its economics plays in producing homophily. In the same way that mainstream media in the 50's and 60's, with just three networks needing to appeal to a broad base of viewership, produced a relatively balanced view of the world that drove a vision of conformity, so the internet and cable television, with their almost infinite channels of media, encourage an exaggerated diversity of viewpoints as a technique to gain attention and viewership. It's simple economics reflecting back the shape of the media systems themselves. How to counteract the echo chamber problem will take serious engineering, as its not just a human problem, its endemic to our current state of media. Oh, and to give credit, my argument is just an extrapolation of Richard Posner's arguments from this NY Times review from 2005,, as well as others, including Clay Shirky:

May. 03 2008 09:59 PM

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