Saturday, January 21, 2012

Is Facebook an Echo Chamber?

Researchers at Facebook this week published the results of an extensive research project examining the popular conception that social networking sites promulgate a singularity of information sources and voices - creating an echo chamber. With the ongoing demise of broad information sources, such as the newspaper, and the increasing usage of social media (e.g. Facbeook, Twitter, LinkedIn) and other news feeds as the primary, or only, source of news, people are not exposed to anywhere near the same diversity of issue coverage as they used to.

So the study, Rethinking Information Diversity in Networks, is an important contribution in understanding this area. It is truly impressive in its design, scale (millions of Facebook users), and dazzling graphs.  The study found that:
even though people are more likely to consume and share information that comes from close contacts that they interact with frequently (like discussing a photo from last night’s party), the vast majority of information comes from contacts that they interact with infrequently. These distant contacts are also more likely to share novel information, demonstrating that social networks can act as a powerful medium for sharing new ideas, highlighting new products and discussing current events.
Before I settled on my current research topic, I planned to research if the Internet promotes homophily and how to facilitating serendipitous information. I, as with many others, believe that access to a diversity of information sources and voices is important for an informed society and hence good government.

Facebook's study is really useful - but they are a couple claims that differ from my experience.

One, is that the nature of information on Facebook is diverse. It may be vast and it may be broad, but I found that with rare exceptions, the information circulated falls into maybe four categories. To me, I mostly see my social circle accounts, entertainment news & commentary, political news & rants, and occasionally news of the odd (okay it's me sharing those stories).

I am also not sure that those we are less close to, i.e. "weak ties", are necessarily that dissimilar and thus expose use to novel information.  I don't doubt the value of weak ties in sharing information, but I still think the information falls into common categories and still tends to roughly entail a common voice or political leaning. Weak ties are still similar to individuals or they wouldn't be a tie at all. People on social network sites certainly friend indiscriminately, even wantonly, but we don't usually friend our polar opposites.

There is no doubt that the Internet exposes us to a greater diversity of voices than older media allowed.  And the Internet definitely has improved the ability to share information - I did find out about this study through a friend's posting on Facebook. I'm still not convinced, however, that we are receiving anywhere near the diversity of coverage of issues and viewpoints that we need.

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