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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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