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.

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