Heterophily: Why you should follow people who you disagree with on Twitter

Networks are a crucial component of the social sciences these days. They are theorised about in almost every sub-discipline and constitute the fundamentals of many concepts and prevailing theories of society and space. One of the major works cited is Mark Granovetter’s ‘Strength of Weak Ties’ argument in 1973, revisited in 1983. Essentially, weak ties are those ties ‘outside’ the core connections that any one actor has. Granovetter uses the example of acquaintances and friends, where the former are more structurally crucial to a network than the latter. In other words, if you operate solely within your group of ‘close-knit’ friends, then there is little or no expansion of that network and hence the proliferation of linear thought; a process known as homophily. Heterophily then is when networks are predicated on difference, or by exploration of ‘weaker’ ties to any given individual – a phenomenon which discourages linearity, and embraces rhizomatic thinking.

Granovetter’s example of ‘ego’ applies to individuals, however the same process has been applied to businesses and hence a major branch of innovation studies being focused on the importance of the heterophilic associations of companies, rather than the more familiar ties/connections. Another branch of thought of the ‘weak ties’ argument can be appropriated in the arena of social networks, in particular, Twitter. As those of you who follow me will know, I use it far too often than I should, but I find that it has really benefited the readership of my work, as well as aiding my discovery of great new bits of information and knowledge, most notably in relation to my work on cities and urbanism. I have built up a network of friends/followers with the same interest in cities, with the same outlook and similar feelings about how cities should ‘be’ and theorised upon. Much akin to what Mr Collins sang about all those years ago, I have in effect, built up a homophilic network by following those who follow me and vice versa. But, as Granovetter and the subsequent literature on networking suggests, these homophilic networks are not as conducive to innovative practices or simply expanding networks.

But given Twitter’s modus operandi, inevitably, people find themselves following/being followed by those with kindred interests; people with different views are simply ignored. But this is not indicative of a heterophilic network; it has no structural strength in weak ties. Hence, I am finding myself seeking out people with differing views to my own to follow, and no longer ‘unfollowing’ people who’s twitter feed has become either boring or down right offensive. While this can have annoying consequences, surely it is a necessary evil if we are to maintain weak ties on Twitter? As I have blogged elsewhere with regard to cities, diversity is a crucial component of a well-adjusted urban environment, and this is also the case with cities online, i.e. social networking. While indulging with like-minded people is clearly important and necessary (particularly in academic realms – you always need co-authors or simply people to back you up sometimes!), in the every world of twittering, I would argue that having the odd ‘weak tie’ is important for the health of your intellectual, cultural, political and societal inclination (that sounds a lot more bold than I mean it to, but you get what I mean right!?). Homophilic tendencies can have a negative effect in that it creates silos of opinion, which can, through positive feedback systems create over-exaggerated truths which manifest themselves in prejudice in the most inflammatory of cases. While this may seem alarmist, you can see the circulation of negativity on many internet discussion boards (the Enemies of Reason blog often posts on such things). The negativity and in some cases, offensive and hateful comments, are obviously a necessary symptom of a democratic and open society (as Evelyn Beatrice Hall once said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”), but only through engagement, and discouraging these homophilic tendencies can they be ‘shouted down’ and ‘argued out’ in favour of something altogether more wholesome.

So, the next time you find yourself thinking about unfollowing someone because they said something you disagree with or they have a divergent interest, think twice – you’ll be cutting off your weaker ties. And when you’re looking for people to follow, try seeking out those who you ordinarily wouldn’t – heterophilic networking is an essential catalyst of a democratic society.


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  2. profesorbaker · January 30, 2011

    Hi Oli,

    This is a very informative post, and I enjoyed reading it. I am struck by how closely it relates to a post I recently wrote, in which I analyse (for the second time) my social networked behaviour, contrasting my Facebook network with my Linkedin network.

    Had I read your post here beforehand, I would have surely used your more evocative terminology of “homophily” instead of the less descriptive term of “resonance”. Where you used “heterophily” I used “non-resonant”.

    As for the concept of weak links and strong links, I had no approriate terms. I circumvented my lack of a descriptive term for this by discussing the benefits VS the drawbacks of the two different kinds of networks.

    Somehow, I still feel that you would find it interesting the way I was able to awkwardly phrase what you so elegantly phrased here.

    I humbly recommend that you take a look at what I wrote. I do believe that you will find it interesting, and if I have erred in my judgement, then I equally humbly apologize in advance.

    Here is the link to my post, entitled: “Global Networks and Geo-Diversity:Re-Presenting My Professional Learning Networks” (#CCK11).


    Kind regards,
    Thomas Baker

  3. Oli · January 30, 2011

    Hi Professor Baker,

    I enjoyed your comment and your post – it is indeed a “resonant” topic! It always fascinates me the way in which there are different articulations of the same topics and I guess this is no different. The terms “homophily” and “heterophiliy” imply a more biological mechanistic quality I suppose, whereas resonant and non-resonant is perhaps more humanistic. Either way, your example of kids in the playground rings true. And I think that the more diverse a network is the more potential there is for better results (although we have to acknowledge that it can sometimes lead to chaos and even conflict). You will see from my blog that my interest is in cities, and the heterophilic tendency of urban neighbourhood networks is something that I am looking to explore more in the future.

    Thanks again for your link to a very thought-provoking post and I look forward to reading more of them in the future!

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  5. AG · May 8, 2012

    Hi Oli! Thanks for your thoughts on the value of heterophily. They’ve certainly helped me reframe with somewhat more rigor an argument I’ve been trying to make, which is simultaneously about the necessity of friction to the production of a metropolitan self, and the value of such selves to the communities in which they participate.

    In other words, I’m piloting the shoals between Granovetter, Sennett and Metcalfe’s “Law.” I haven’t quite nailed it down yet…but I’m closing in.

    Thanks again.

  6. Oli · May 9, 2012

    Hi Adam,

    Thanks for your comment – glad that a moments pontificating is having some sort of effect. I’ve had a quick perusal of your site and it looks like a really interesting place of work. Given my own work on Creative Cities (note: NOT from a Floridian or Landry perspective I am quick to add!) it seems your projects are just the kind of thing that add to the functionality and usability of the Creative City. I’ll definitely keep my eyes peeled for future work. Have you heard of The vitality index from Linda Lees’ group in New York? it seems you may have some (albeit slight) overlaps there.

    Anyway, thanks again for your interest,

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