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.

The Urban Communicate: From T-Mobile to the Love Police via the Reichstag

Having just been reading up on the ‘Media City’ (the academic fundamentals of which are articulated very acutely by Scott McQuire’s 2008 book, which I have just finished reviewing for the Urban Geography Research Group), the ways in which technology, consumption, networks and the city collide in contemporary society are becoming increasingly apparent, yet no less complex. This thought process has been catalysed by spending the last few weeks in the company of peers involved in the urban subversions ‘meme’ (for want of a better phrase). As such, it is evermore apparent (if it was ever not so), that the city is the crucible of experimentation with the splicing of media and communications techniques, viral networks and subversive ‘tactics‘ (to use a De Certeauian neologism). As much as “the city is the striated space par excellence”  as argued by Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 481), this striation forces the city to fold in on itself creating medial experimentation space par excellence.

If you still need convincing then all you have to do is watch commercial television long enough for an advert to come on. More and more television adverts these days are using ‘viral’ or ‘flash-mobing’ campaigns a lá an Improv Everywhere-style. Probably the earliest example was the T-Mobile dancing advert shot in Liverpool Street Station. One that is more recent (so recent in fact, I can only find a flikr page showing stills of behind the scenes) is where Homebase dress Carlisle station up like a showroom, to the apparent delight and amazement of the early commuters. Mass ‘art’ or urban intervention movements like this are not new, such as Christo’s work (stretching back to 1972 – with the Umbrellas in California and Japan, or the Wrapped Reichstag probably his most famous work, pictured). However, their use in the promotion of commercial goods, at least ‘in the mainstream’ is a relatively new phenomenon. The surreptitious nature of these adverts are increasing, with this offering (if anyone thinks that this isn’t an advert for Coke is either stubborn or just plain wrong).

It probably says more about the nature of the advertising industry, but there is a sense that using the city as the arena for these ‘playful’ ways is becoming more acceptable, if not to city authorities, then to the every day consumer-in-the-street. The progression of media delivery from the idiot box in the corner to technological ‘viral’ communications forces innovations in advertising and communication techniques to keep pace with the shifting prevailing winds of societal change. The city is hence the playground of such events as, I would argue, urbanites are becoming more attuned to a reaction against the ‘striation’ of the urban apparatus, which rebukes the non-place ethic which Augé argues is prevalent in urban societies.

The ability of companies, individuals and political groups to spread their message through Web 2.0 (or is it Web 3.0? I’m losing count…) techniques is broadening our informational horizons and the appreciation of the city as a place for derivé. While this opens the door for the creep of commercialisation, it brings with it the ability for such urban ‘tactics’ to gain momentum, which if used effectively (such as the Love Police’s successful rebuttal against a ‘stop-and-search’ attempt by the Metropolitan Police) are creating a more inclusive and democratic urban environment.

The future’s not bright, it’s a little cloudy…

That most memorable of advertising slogans coined by Orange way back in the early 90s sticks in the mind as the signal for the future communications that we were about to embark. Yes, in the 90s, the ubiquity of mobile phones seemed as likely as the demise of the shellsuit as a fashionable health and safety nightmare. Now, we all have mobiles and anyone who doesn’t have one is labeled as weird and it’s arguably so ingrained into society’s Lefebvrian ‘rhythmanalysis‘, that it is starting to effect the gene pool – would you like it if your child was about to embark on a relationship with someone who didn’t own a mobile?

Computers and/or visual screens dominate our eyeballs all day. Yet, the variety of them is increasing. Some of us will have a work computer, laptop, iphone and a TV – and screens are now all over the tube, in hotel lobbies and are even appearing in magazines now. This ‘pervasive computing‘, while increasing, is not new, however the transfer of actual data between these mediums (and by data, I mean that which is of importance to the users) is starting to melt into ‘the cloud‘. Once upon a time we would carry around USB pen drives or have access to our home computers’ hard drive. But these days, dropbox will suffice. Our emails are stored a dusty server deep in Google’s basement. Our photos are not on an external drive which is now bursting at the seams, but on Facebook, Picasa, Panoramio, or whatever is popular this week. With Spotify’s availability on the iphone now confirmed, no one will download actual files anymore, instead they are just a click (and an annoying advert) away.

All this leaves us free. Free from the burden of having to remember to copy this file across or upload that photo. No longer do we need a USB stick or a bulky external hard drive and a plug point in order to present our latest paper. Instead, with the help of our variety of devices we now have at our disposal, we can just pluck it out of the cloud. Easy.

So where does this leave us? Civil liberty campaigners are already dubious as to the nature of storage of our material by third parties, and the cloud is only likely to increase this suspiciousness. But we don’t have to use the cloud do we, so we can opt out right? Well yes, but you could opt out of having a mobile phone and look what that does to your social mantra. You can even hide all your money under a matress and flip bank accounts the finger, but you try and function in our economic-centric society without one and you soon become something worse than an outcast – you are viewed with suspicion by the powers that be. So ignoring the cloud is not really an option, at any individual level at any rate.

But with Moore’s law seeming now ‘too slow’, the alacrity of those at the forefront of our technological hybridisation means that the cloud may be superseded by another technological ubiquity in a few years time. Maybe driven by AI or ‘Augmented Reality‘. And it is this that forms the main prevailing deux et machina of this post. There are no dystopic murmurings here, simply a focus on the philosophies that ‘UbiComp’ or the cloud afford us. If we continue to surrender agency to this realm of ones and zeros, then ultimately we are hybridising ourselves and the duality of humans and nonhumans really is confined to a pre-historic era (if it wasn’t already – which is was). My previous post discussed 2001: A Space Odessey as the quintessential film about tools, and the more we live with our head in the clouds, the more the finale of the film resonates. In essence, there is a need to dispel the categorization tendencies of a neo-Marxist tradition, and reject a unambiguous reality of Descartes and embrace a rhizomatic (even Spinozian) language of continuity. There are no human nonhuman boundaries, only a continuing journey. So bring your brolly, it looks very cloudy out…

Why Facebook is the new Jurassic Park: Web 2.0 and Actor-Network Theory

In the opening scenes of Jurassic Park when John Hammond’s invited guests embark upon their tour in the automated jeeps, they are whisked through the gargantuan ingression with the cinematography and the music creating a sense of grandeur, danger and wonderment. “What have they got in here, King Kong?” marvels Goldlum’s (annoying) character in reference to the giant gates that kept King Kong at bay. The giant electric fences ring the park and their catastrophic failure leads to the major premise and action of the film.

Fast-forward to 2009 and a pre-historic site of conflict of a different kind, Facebook. There has a lot written about Facebook’s continued malaise and their recent thematic change has been seen by many to be more ‘Twitter-like‘, which is difficult to argue against. Their constant shifting of layouts and architecture makes it all the more difficult to navigate and often vital pieces of information are lost, and the controversy surrounding their hording of user’s content only served to damage further their reputation as a ‘for-the-user’ institution. However, the main ‘problem’ I have with Facebook now is that it seems all too Jurassic Park. You have to get there, enter through massive gates and once inside, it’s all a bit messy and rushed, which leads to lawyers getting eaten by T-Rex’s (ok maybe not that bit but here’s hoping). It’s not quite as crazy an analogy as you might first expect. Facebook are very keen to let you know you’re there – heavy branding; the infrastructure of the site is such that the navigation panels remain in place as you move around meaning that not that much of the page is malleable; even the links you click from it have a Facebook banner atop. It’s all just a bit too ‘labeled’ or like a walled city, entering through the massive gates (or domain name – FACEBOOK.COM!!).

Then consider Twitter. Those who use it will tell you that the web page twitter.com is one of the least-used interfaces for updating their status. TwitterFox is a favourite of mine, but there are numerous others which people use, among the most popular are tweetdeck and possibly dabr. The mobile usage of twitter was one of it’s main catalysts of growth, whereas for Facebook, it was mostly an afterthought and it’s features are severely reduced on a mobile service. The now (semi-)famous twitchhiker said that twitter is like an infrastructure rather than a ‘website’, and this is something with which I agree – it has diffused and permeated people’s web interfaces, mostly discreetly and become simply for many, an alternative mode of communication.

Such an ontology can be attributed with many other Web 2.0 techniques. The ease at which features from one site can be embedded in another means that the boundaries of traditional domains and websites are being eroded and people are bringing what they want from the web in one place, rather than one place linking to all the others. Google Maps can be embedded in websites, twitter feeds into a blog, YouTube embedding – the list is increasing daily.

In an earlier blog post, I championed the use of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) with the epistemology of Web 2.0, and it seems that this is increasingly so the case. The network metaphor is often a very spatial one, with nodes and networks continually spreading further and further into the ether, connecting endless amounts of actors and bringing them more and more into the complexity of the central network. But ANT tells us that “there exists no place that can be said to be ‘non-local’. If something is to be ‘delocalized’, it means that it is being sent from one place to some other place, not from one place to no place”. Latour (2005: 179). In other words, when it comes to information communication in web 2.0 environments, when it is ‘delocalised’, it is not in some form ‘out there’, it is simply another place. The ease at which we can bring various threads of information and visualisations from disparate places to one place (be it our blog, our RSS feeder or whatever) it collapses the network in on itself and does away with the whole ‘spatial’ network metaphor altogether. Instead, it is an ‘actor-network’, one which is comprised of action and relationality. The network is purported by the performance of actors (us, our laptops, the servers, camera phones etc.) and it is this energising which creates the network, not other way round.

There are many websites which are attempting to ‘delocalise’ their operations, with the BBC football gossip column offering widgets for blogs and Facebook pages, ebay offering ‘ebay to go‘ which allows you to embed an auction in your blog, thetrainline offering desktop gadgets, the list is seemingly endless.  The decomposition of traditional meta-narrative ‘boundaries’ is a key kernel of thought in social science literature at present and I think that it can be attributed to websites; the gates of Jurassic Park were eventually breached – and the same seems to happening to traditional web architectures.

What now for Actor-Network Theory with the advent of Web 2.0?

Actor-Network Theory (or simply, ANT) has been my staple diet of social theory, methodology and research direction for the last 6 years now, with my PhD thesis revolving around the tenant of ANT and Bruno Latour‘s writings. Adding a temporal dimension, one could say that it was in the late 90s to early 2000s that ANT had its main usage in the social science, with geographers among them; the late great Jonathan Murdoch was a major factor in this usage. The nuances of ANT, if you are not familiar, are fascinating and if you are interested, read Latour’s fantastic book, Reassembling the Social, or take a tour around this excellent resource, ANTHEM.

Other authors (Michelle Callon and John Law to name but 2) have contributed, but Bruno Latour can be considered the ‘godfather’ of ANT and at a recent talk he gave at the LSE, he offered much of the theoretical background to ANT through the lens of the recent technological advances in computer software. Since completing my thesis, I have been content with ANT’s place in my theoretical/methodological armoury, knowing it’s place and it’s limitations. At the time of the talk, I was interested in ANT’s properties for social innovation, but now with my foray into the topologies of Web 2.0, ANT has reared it’s linguistical head once more.

The associative ontology offered by ANT is one which speaks to the networked nature of Web 2.0 connectivity, for a number of different reasons. But primarily, ANT’s focus on practice and action as the formulating power of the network aligns with the performative aspects of Web 2.o. If we take the example of Twitter, the networks formed by people following each other only surface when those people actually contribute, i.e. write something! There are lots spam followers and people who set up an account just to see what it’s all about, but then soon lose interest and stop contributing. These ‘dead links’ create a ‘hinternet’ of defunct (or dormant) connections which are not acted upon and hence cannot be considered part of the networks (from a performativity point of view). This can be applied to a whole host of digital graveyards – webpages not updated since 2002, blogs going untouched, Facebook groups which are now defunct – they all exist (in terms of wasted memory on some dusty server somewhere) but are not doing anything, and therefore do not ‘effect’ the constitution of the network.

Also, ANT talks of translation, which is the power of actors to influence the network connectivity properties. This is particularly noticeable with web 2.0 with the ease at which people can get across their point of view. My previous blog entry focused on how information is readily available and how this has the possibility to shape public opinion, and it is this ‘power’ which is effected through the generation of heterogeneous (or Web 2.0) connections.

The advent of Web 2.0 and the advancements in the semantic web mean that we will be become increasingly connected. While this is a cliché, its truth holds precisely because of the fact that this technology is allowing for more communication and therefore action to these connections. Whereas a link between you and me can be said to exist, unless that connection is acted upon (by talking to each other – which Web 2.0 facilitates) then it remains simply a metaphysical link without any real tangible meaning. Technological change and the link with ANT is now the subject of a specialized journal, and so it is not just me and my ramblings which puport to the fact that ANT has a place in the increasingly connected virtual world.

As I constantly remind people (and myself), ANT works best as a language for describing the world in which we live (well, also as a methodological tool – but that is for the social scientists out there) and it seems tailor-made for Web 2.0. Latour gives frequent talks around the world and if anybody can make it to them, I strongly recommend them, as he gives a very compelling (and always witty) account of technology which is infused with his ANT-inspired lexicon. Web 2.0, more accurately, the multiplicity of apps that seem to be related to it, increase our embroilment with each other, and therefore, as our actor-networks increase, we would do well to increase our understanding of how to best describe and articulate it – and we have a ready made blueprint with ANT.