Saturday, 31 January 2009

Returning to the comfort zone

Homophily: a sociological term roughly equivalent to 'birds of a feather flock together.'

Or so I discovered while reading today's Guardian, which I suppose was a homophilous act in itself (as Graeme Le Saux's former teammates would doubtless agree). Homophily²?

Anyway, homophily also happens to be at least partly what I was going on about in the last post, when I said that the internet makes it easier than ever not just to find new and challenging things to read but also not to: online there are so many variations of (and within) your own particular comfort zone, so many variations of the things you know that you want to know about, that you never have to leave it; set up your Google Reader feeds correctly and you need never read an article outside of - or that might expand - your interests ever again.

In short, the internet is one giant serendipity machine, but only if you use it that way.

The question, of course, is, how do you use it that way? If you want to discover something you don't know about, or don't know
that you might be interested in, how on earth do you go about it? It's like Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns, only less sinister and explosive.

Already, I expect, you're probably thinking of Twitter, or Digg, or some other less hyped clamour of recommendation and knowledge highlighting, and maybe you're correct to an extent, but eventually don't all of these settle down into a particular user base, with particular interests and areas of expertise? And don't you have to work out who to follow? Easy enough when you're looking for knowledge you know will appeal to you, not so easy when you're just looking for serendipity.

Oliver Burkeman in the article linked to above suggests's Unsuggester, a 'least likely to like' button, which almost makes me want to sign up right now; except I doubt that if it threw up a Louise Bagshawe I'd actually give it a try, and not just because of the mental image that phrasing inadvertently gives rise to. However, that's probably a trivial example, and the Unsuggester might well be useful for finding books that will expose you to political viewpoints, say, that you might have dismissed without ever really having looked at them; though I guess it'll never give you the self-awareness to realise that that's what you've done, which is probably even more important.

But what other such things exist online? Anyone? VSL, perhaps?

Ultimately, I think, what we need is the internet equivalent of my old university friend Abhi (who I sadly lost touch with years ago and doesn't seem to be on Facebook). He and I hardly agreed on anything, but that was precisely the joy of it: discussing some random thing of interest to either of us and trying to understand why the other thought about it the way he did. Occasionally one of us would change his mind as a result, but only rarely; mostly it was just that act of trying to understand the other's viewpoint and better understand our own that was the point, as well as learning something new. (On the other hand, we got to know each other through a mutual friend, and maybe, fundamentally, we were quite similar? That's possible too).

So where does all that leave us? Probably right back where we started, I'm afraid. If we want to stray outside our online comfort zone and see what's out there, to understand the views we don't share and expand our interests, there probably isn't an easy way, we just have to make the effort. And that's just the problem, isn't it? We're a lazy lot, humans. Or as far as I've ever bothered to establish anyway.

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