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Social Networks, Echo Chambers and Democracy

October 8, 2017

The last ten days or so have been a real conundrum. While questions of toilette paper quantity, sufficient bedroll and where exactly to abandon the Interstate system do occupy my thoughts, nothing has been squarely at the fore of mind than my discovery of just how resilient my social network is.

Image from UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, "Digital Dandelions: The Flowering of Network Research"


This is a little bit shocking. It is exceedingly humbling.


I've long thought of myself as a well-traveled, open, engaged and connected person. Connected not in the sense of, "many devices and Internet-enabled connections tie me to others," but in the sense of, my network of friends and acquaintances is broad, deep and diverse, a well of life experiences that serve to enrich and inform, deepen and enliven my loves and treasured memories - fragments of conversation, shared laughter and meals, new ideas and ways of being all extending extensively into untapped and unmet relations.


Turns out I'm probably wrong.


In the vast interconnection of social media I am coming to perceive something akin to a social "throughline."  But before I go there, let me rewind a bit.


Years ago while a young researcher for the non-profit AmericaSpeaks, the Internet was emerging as a new force in democratic theory. Thanks in part to the popularization brought about by the Clinton/Gore team in "redesigning government" as well as the strenuous efforts of Steve Case at AOL to get households and businesses connected, the decade1993-2003 saw a radical transformation in the orientation of popular democratic aspiration – from place-based traditions to a new landscape of power centered around interests.


As the worldwide web quickly moved from its early "point-to-many" model into the "2.0" design for many-to-many interactions, writers began to emerge with serious concerns about the "balkanization" of the web, the mass migration into "echo chambers" and networks of affinity (see Cass Sunstein and Danah Boyd for example).


This movement toward likeminded social enclaves isn't only a function of our online lives. Robert Putnam questioned whether Americans were more or less likely to join socially inclusive groups in the age of television, and his Bowling Along suggested that we were withdrawing from traditional forms of civic association. Later, in an expansion of his "social capital" work, he concluded that while maybe traditional forms of social interaction were happening, they happened much less across groups defined by race and class. In other words, our "bridging" social capital was depleting.


In his 2004 book, The Big Sort, Bill Bishop wrote that, "America may be more diverse than ever coast to coast, but the places where we live are becoming increasingly crowded with people who live, think, and vote like we do."

 Image from Pew Research Center, "Political Polarization in the American Public." 


This has certainly been true in my experience, that my home state of Vermont must be said to represent our fair share of this demographic trend data. In some ways I can be proud of that – we invest political and economic capital in our children, in our environment, in human equality and dignity. By and large our institutions are fair and accessible to the voices of residents in the state. But diverse we are not (I won't spend time here on the merits of the "intellectual diversity" train of thought – perhaps another post!). 


I've let myself off the hook. I've been lazy. I've allowed myself the comfort of believing that networks follow you wherever you go, and somehow they can inform and infuse our thinking if we take care to keep them nourished.


This isn't as easy as I might have thought, which brings me to the idea of a social "throughline."


In story writing, a throughline is a plot or other device that connects a sequence of events though the story. The throughline is the animating force of a book or play, and connects the people and events, tethers them to the mind of the reader.


Perhaps in social networks there is something similar to watch for: what are the connections that draw us to one, two, three or more people removed? And as we move outward, how elastic are those relationships, how much "unlike" us to they become? What does it take in the cultivation and nurturing of our online presences to create and sustain network connections with unlike people, people whose thoughts and views at times challenge our own or make us uncomfortable?


As I scan through the incoming data of the many wonderful people I'm going to have the pleasure of meeting on this Search, I'm struck at how similar we are – at least on the surface. The most revelatory question for me then, is how can a snowball sample break out of this boundary?


To date I've resisted placing ads, working to get publicity, and taking part in anything other than a social media outreach effort. Part of this is because I don't want the attention, and the other reason is that I'd like more control of the message. This Search isn't about politics or an agenda, and its not about any right answers. Its a genuine one-on-one search for conversations that are built of trust and good will, a mutual interest in talking about what enlivens our democratic aspiration in America at a time of complex change.


What are the big ideas that compel us individually and as a nation to build this "more perfect union?" I know they're out there – I'd welcome your participation.


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