How social networking erodes your personal network

American students are pre-selecting their college friends to be just like them, thanks to social networks. Are online communities actually reducing diversity?

What does mythology tell us about dragons? Yes, they breathe fire, and eat virgins, but they also sit on great, big piles of treasure. That combination of risk and reward, of danger and achievement, seems like an appropriate topic to explore within the theme of this year's NEXT conference: Here Be Dragons.

Social networking is one of those areas where risk and reward seem to be bundled very closely together. We're all aware of the positive effect of sites like Facebook: increased connection and communication with the people we care about, a feeling of ambient awareness about how people are doing and the chance to reconnect with friends we've lost track of. However, researcher danah boyd posted a thought-provoking entry on her blog about a specific way that Facebook is eroding something that was of benefit to society. In the US, students are developing less diverse networks of friends because of Facebook:

When pre-frosh turn to Facebook before arriving on campus, they do so to find other people who share their interests, values, and background. As such, they begin a self-segregation process that results in increased "homophily" on campuses. Homophily is a sociological concept that refers to the notion that birds of a feather stick together. In other words, teens inadvertently undermine the collegiate social engineering project of creating diverse connections through common experiences. Furthermore, because Facebook enables them to keep in touch with friends from high school, college freshman spend extensive time maintaining old ties rather than building new ones. They lose out on one of the most glorious benefits of the American collegiate system: the ability to diversify their networks.

This is, in effect, a very specific case of the filter bubble effect at work. Eli Pariser coined the phrase to describe the way algorithms progressively reduce the diversity of content we're exposed to as they learn more about us. Effectively, they strat pandering to our prejudices. (You can explore the idea further in his TED talk.)

This, though, is not unique to technology filters - the internet has allowed us to make connections based on interest rather than proximity for years. Pre-internet, it took significant effort to find people interested in the same topics as you if they didn't live locally. Ever since, we're only a quick Google search away from like-minded folks.

There's huge value in that. But there's also a danger. You can surround yourself with people who share your politics and interests, and never hear dissenting voices or challenging opinions. You stop analysing yourself and your beliefs. You fall into a circle of self-reinforcing political dogma. Freshman students pre-select friends to be like they are now, while investing time in relationships from the past that should have faded away, and never grow as a result. Political activists form a mutually re-enforcing circle on Twitter of people who believe exactly as they do - and wonder why they have no success in convincing others to join their cause - or, worse, start persuading themselves that the lack of success of their cause is down to conspiracy theories.

Until we, as a society, start taking a long hard look at the dragon on top of the mound of social networking treasure, we'll never figure out how to avoid being burned alive…

Photo by Tracy Olson on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons licence