Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Homophily and Algorithms?

A New York Times article published this week explored the phenomenon of homophily of Facebook posts as it relates to political views. As we discussed in class this semester, homophily is the tendency to associate oneself with like-minded people of similar backgrounds.

Social media blew up immediately after Hilary Clinton announced her her 2016 presidential bid—the announcement tweet posted to her account was viewed 3 million times within one hour. A wave of political commentary combined with the algorithm behind Facebook's news feed has created a sort of "polarization more often associated with MSNBC or Fox News" (Corasaniti, Casting Early Presidential Vote Through Facebook by Clicking 'Unfollow'). The algorithm is designed to highlight content a user is likely to engage with. For example, if a user liked a Hilary Clinton fan page, more Clinton related posts will pop up on that user's news feed. This means that the content a user sees is probably related to their interests, thus filtering out—or, at least, giving less priority to—content that a user is not interested in.

It is not very easy to filter the kind of people you associate with in person based on their beliefs and backgrounds, but the internet makes it far too easy. With just the click of a mouse, you can silence a particularly opinionated person you don't agree with. The ease of tuning out is meant to provide a more enjoyable experience for users, but it makes it all too easy to shut out unappealing remarks. Discussion and exposure to different perspectives are both important aspects of education, While the "unfollow" feature is convenient, it may hinder productive discussion by making content more polariazed.

The presidential race is a more apparent illustration of the effects of homophily on social media. It is easy to pick out the differences between a Democrat and a Republican, and what their respective news feeds probably look like. But what about more subliminal differences? Do you tend to associate more often with people of the same sex? Same racial background? Surely, you are more likely to associate with people going to the same school as you. How far has the hand of homophily reached into your social media experience? The people you associate with have a huge impact on the type of content and information you are exposed to. It is important to be aware of this, because it could affect your views on the world.

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