I hate to burst your (filter) bubble…

Do you wonder why lately you haven’t noticed the conservative rantings of your freshman year roommate on your Facebook news feed? As your social network expands, do you wonder if it will keep pace and properly respond to advances in algorithmic personalization? As Jonathan Stray describes in “Are we struck in filter bubbles? Here are five potential paths out”, you are likely trapped “in your own sycophantic universe”, void of any contradicting thoughts or challenges to your belief structure. Your salvation lies in the power and diversity of the social network you have created.

In Net Smart, Howard Rheingold suggests, that despite what we might think, our individual happiness is more closely “depend[ent] on those people we have never met”. Perhaps that is why I used to arrive at work angry each morning, having listened to the poorly crafted, and occasionally sexist, sports takes on WEEI 850AM.

More to the point, we have moved away from the old manner of thinking about information. Stray explains that it is less about content and more about connecting people to people. Content has always been curated and filtered. Complex algorithms have now replaced media editors who once used to dictate what content was valuable for the public to read. So as Stray alludes, the filter bubble is not new, but I believe we now possess the ability to change the dynamic by enhancing our network.

I found it interesting to consider Mark Granovetter’s theory on the “Strength of weak ties” in relation to a job hunt. Those of us who are tied to a “highly clustered” network would likely be aware of the same job openings, or lack thereof. It is the individual that seeks the assistance of their weak ties that will likely find a diverse and rewarding opportunity. I can relate to this in my professional life, having made a number of hires based on loosely connected referrals. I am also keenly aware that I will be relying on this same network as I move from graduation to the job market. The more diverse I make my network now, the greater likelihood of success in May.

It is this issue of diversity, however, that I find the most challenging when comparing Stray’s explanation of the perils of the filter bubble and Rheingold’s emphasis on building your network. Rheingold suggests that it is worthwhile to invest time in connecting with less prominently linked individuals in order to diversify your network. These individuals likely have a different set of skills and core beliefs, while also having a varying degree of importance. Regardless, however, they exist as weak ties located at the edges of your network. But these are the very same weak ties that Stray insists get marginalized by the improvements in personalization. While it is valuable to connect with the weak ties from Rheingold’s point of view, the unlikelihood that you engage regularly with them via shared links, will almost certainly guarantee they will be filtered out. How do you reconcile that contradiction? Further, if you accept the contradiction and adjust your efforts toward increasing your strong ties, you become complicit in your own filter bubble never exposing yourself to challenging points of view, never broadening your horizons.

As a result of this course I have a renewed sense of commitment to my social network. The potential gains in what Rheingold calls “social capital” are too great to pass up. The funds and awareness raised through the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is the most recent example of the power and leverage of your network. Even on a personal level I helped raise funds for one of my best friends who lost his home during the June 2011 Tornadoes here in MA (photo 11 in gallery) or more recently, a simple meal wagon set up for a classmate who had a baby. All great stories, and all derived from a combination of strong and weak ties, but largely from people the beneficiaries have never met.

I used to mock the legitimacy of people’s networks. While I focused wrongly on those who care about the number of Facebook friends they have, or “likes” on their most recent post, without the power of my network, I would never have received a birthday present from Celtic great Larry Bird.

For the record, I have never met Larry Bird, but I grew up idolizing him and Michael Jordan. To make the leap from a childhood fixation to the signed bobble head birthday wishes story, all I had to do was hang a framed photo of the Legend in my office. A fellow manager that I was loosely acquainted with noticed the portrait and asked about my interest. He revealed that his wife was from French Lick, Indiana, home of none other than Larry Bird, and that they were good friends in High School. A few months later I was in receipt of a rare bobble head and a personalized birthday card from #33. Not only is that a demonstration of the strength my weak ties, but it also closes on Rheingold’s emphasis on social capital, and how “doing favors for strangers in a network without anticipation of reciprocation is the best way to operate”.

As network linkages and connectivity go, my Bacon Number may be 0, but my Larry Bird number is a 3.


Blog Post #1: Here Comes Everybody

In Here Comes Every Body: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky examines technological changes and the integration and impact of new social media tools on the way we communicate with one another in an evolving digital age.

One of Shirky’s central themes involves what he refers to as the “elimination of scarcity,” an “old world disadvantage” that placed limitations on an individual’s ability to organize and share information. Shirky utilizes a wide range of examples to highlight the fact that, in our current digital age, prior barriers to publish, distribute, reproduce and categorize information have disappeared or have been intentionally eliminated based on new ways of utilizing technology to expand concepts of community.

Shirky’s notion of the “amateurization” of certain professions was an interesting proposition, and one that I have often struggled with. Who is a journalist? What does that title constitute? Am I now considered a journalist after my first foray into blogging? A former co-worker, who will remain nameless, wrote a “tween” fiction novel recently. The plot is derivative of the latest Hunger Games or Twilight-style offering, and would stand no chance at print in a competitive publishing market. However, in this digital age, he was able to self-publish and distribute copies to friends and family to generate interest from their networks. Does the elimination of the barrier, or “scarcity” to publish and the amatuerization of this industry require that I refer to him as an author or novelist? Perhaps I must.

Another theme I focused on was the way “sharing can anchor community” and the impact a wide and expansive network can have on an issue as small as the return of a cell phone, or something as heart wrenching as sifting through the aftermath of a Tsunami. The latter example conjured memories of the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings. After the explosions and the initial chaos, there was a small network of marathoners who were, for security and logistics reasons, cut off from their backpacks, wallets, car keys and even families. These people would essentially have no place to go. No shelter – simply waiting for direction and opportunity to reconnect with their belongings and/or loved ones. In an outpouring of support for their neighbor’s, individuals took to social media sites like Twitter, Craigslist, and Facebook to offer their homes to stranded runners and their families. It happened instantly and without provocation or request from some higher authority. A truly remarkable showing in the midst of such sadness and uncertainty.

I also agree with Shirky’s acknowledgement of the impossibility of responding to one’s entire network, with respect to fame and scale, as it closely touched on experiences I have had working for elected officials. Shirky asserts that as fame increases, the size and scale of your network or organization will also increase. As an elected official, interacting with your constituency is essential. While social media tools have made this interaction much easier, expectations have increased along with technology. I recall working for a MA State Senator who was interested in expanding his social media presence to Facebook and Twitter. In the early stages, as we began to roll out his twitter account and facebook page, the experience was very positive. In fact, he insisted on handling 100% of the responses. This insistence would prove temporary, for at the time we only maintained followers who were very loyal to the Senator. He was able to handle the two-way communication in what Shirky calls “tight conversation clusters”, but once the network grew, and with its growth came divergent feelings toward the Senator, it became unwieldy for the Senator to handle all of the responses. Shortly after that evolution, it became unwieldy to respond to most of the questions posed through those mediums.  A complex challenge to operating within the new digital reality.

In all, I have enjoyed my reading of Here Comes Everybody. Shirky has provided a diverse set of examples to highlight the impact of this technological revolution, and while he notes that “the old world of scarcity may have some disadvantages, it spared us the worst of amateur production”, I will take to poorest of amateur production rather than return to the age TV and radio.