The rise of the world wide web brought with it optimism regarding the dissemination of information: with this tool, we would be able to access a wide range of viewpoints from diverse backgrounds, belief systems, and geographic locations. However, it seems that the Internet has had just the opposite effect. Instead of taking advantage of the diverse viewpoints offered to us, we seek out only that which conforms to our own belief systems, creating an ‘information cocoon,’ in which we become further and further ensconced in our own prejudices (Sunstein 2006).
It is within our nature as human beings to form relationships with those who are similar to us (McPherson 2001). Our tendency toward homophily exists on several dimensions such as age, race, sex, religion, education, behavior, and beliefs. In this paper, I will examine the dangerous effects that our homophilous relationships can wreak. By seeking out opinions and ideas from people who are similar to us, we significantly limit the information that we receive, and in turn increase our propensity toward bias and error.
In his article, The Daily Me, New York Times Columnist Nicholas D. Kristof states,
We generally don’t truly want good information – but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in a reassuring womb of an echo chamber.
By accessing only information that conforms to our pre-existing beliefs, we cut ourselves off from new ideas, while becoming more and more entrenched in our previously-held notions.
Kristof (2009) offers several examples of this phenomenon. In one study, Republicans and Democrats were offered various political mailings from a neutral source. Researchers found that both groups strongly preferred to read information that validated their pre-existing beliefs. When either group expressed interest in reading opposing arguments, it was only for those which seemed obviously silly or untrue. It seems we are only interested in hearing ideas from the opposition when it is easy to caricature them as idiots. We are not interested in receiving good arguments that may convince us to reevaluate our ideas.
Another study comparing 12 nations found that Americans are least likely to discuss politics with people who hold different views (Kristof 2009). Remarkably, this tendency toward homophily worsens with increased education. In fact, high school dropouts seemed to have the most diverse group of discussion-mates, while college graduates maintained the most homophilous discussion groups. This tendency toward homophilous relationships creates a dangerous feedback loop: the more we surround ourselves with like-minded individuals, the more entrenched in our beliefs we become. The more entrenched we become, the less likely we are to seek out or accept differing opinions.
By insulating ourselves within homophilous groups, not only do we miss out on important counter information, but we often become more extreme in our biases. Sunstein (2009) found that when groups of liberals debated on a topic, liberals who entered the group holding fairly moderate, or even conservative, beliefs on a specific topic, left the deliberation much more liberal. Discussing an issue with like-minded people for only 15 minutes can have a significant effect on polarization and bias.
Blogs are not immune to the influences of homophily and information cocoons. In fact, tools such as Google Reader allow us to select the blogs we choose (most often blogs that conform to our ideas and values), and read only those sources. Blogs tend to post stories from contributors who share similar attitudes, link to blogs that espouse similar views, receive comments from similar users, and even post advertisements from similar organizations. A study done on 1400 blogs found that 91% of the links on each blog were to like-minded sites (Adamic 2004).
One possible solution to this problem is to hold blog writers accountable for the preponderance of information cocoons. Kuhn’s blogging ethics (2007) aims to account for a wide range of blogs and includes four main goals: to promote interactivity, to promote free expression, to strive for factual truth, and to be as transparent as possible. In order to account for information cocoons, this code of ethics could include requirements that blogs feature contributors with diverse believes, that blog writers disclose their biases, and that bloggers include links to alternative viewpoints.
It is worth questioning whether the responsibility to avoid information cocoons should rest with the blog writers. Perhaps by hoisting these requirements onto blog authors, we will dilute their perspectives, censor their ideas, and in turn create less diversity of information. Perhaps, then, the responsibility should fall on the blog reader to be aware of the danger of information cocoons and to seek out diverse viewpoints. In fact, this is precisely how Kristof concludes his article. He says,
So what’s the solution? Tax breaks for liberals who watch Bill O’Reilly or conservatives who watch Keith Olbermann? No, until President Obama brings us universal health care, we can’t risk the surge in heart attacks.
So perhaps the only way forward is for each of us to struggle on our own to work out intellectually with sparring partners whose views we deplore.
By being more conscious of the information we take in, we will be able to access a diverse set of viewpoints, enriching our understanding of the world. Perhaps core curriculum in higher education or even primary or secondary school can focus on the notion of the information cocoon, striving to create information-literate citizens who are capable of seeking out and evaluating a diverse set of ideas and beliefs. Perhaps there is a need for a secondary, neutral resource which links to reputable sources of divergent opinions,
One conclusion is clear though: awareness of the danger of information cocoons will do much good in enhancing the way we access information. The danger of the information cocoon creates a wide array of challenges within the information profession: from the engineers creating search algorithms at Google to the editors and readers of political blogs to educators and curriculum reformers. By being aware of these dangers, we can strive to create and consume balanced and diverse ideas.
Adamic L & Glance N. (2005). The political blogosphere and the 2004 election: Divided they blog. Accessed March 7, 2012 from http://citeseer.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.59.9009
Kristof, N. (2009, March 18). The daily me. The New York Times. Retrieved March 7, 2012 from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/19/opinion/19kristof.html?_r=2
Kuhn, M. (2007). Interactivity and prioritizing the human: A code of blogging ethics. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 22(1), 18-36.
McPherson, Miller, Smith-Lovin and Cook (2001). Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 415-444
Sunstein, C. (2006). Infotopia: How many minds produce knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press.