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The diversity (or not) of social media

Last week, Kottke wrote…

There's little diversity and independence: Twitter and Facebook mostly show you people who are like you and things your social group is into. And social media is becoming ever more centralized: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Medium, Pinterest, etc. instead of a decentralized network of independent blogs. In fact, the nature of social media is to be centralized, peer-dependent, and homogeneous because that's how people naturally group themselves together.

I don’t think blogs in-and-of-themselves solve this problem.

The Echo Chamber

Several years ago, I was reading many different blogs, but they were all similar in content and focus. They all regularly linked to each other and parroted each others’ ideas.

Humans as a species are drawn to ideas that reinforce our own beliefs.

Last year, I made a deliberate choice to diversify my reading habits. I started following blogs on a wider variety of topics. I started following new people on Twitter. Since then, I have found myself pruning back to a slightly less diverse group of content, because to be honest, there’s a lot of content out there, and I don’t want to waste time reading things that bore me.

But the echo-chamber effect isn’t a web 2.0 or social media problem. It happens in real life, too. Humans often surround themselves with like minded people.

The Suburbification of the Web

One exception to this is densely populated cities, where you’re forced to interact with a diverse range of people. And this is where I think social media does cause some (but not all) of the problems.

Five or ten years ago, it was harder to find stuff on the web. You had to interact with a diverse set of content and ideas. The internet was all city.

Today, social media makes it easy for you to find like-minded people and interact with them. Twitter and Facebook are suburban developers. But Google also got better at search. It serves results based on your prior habits, which makes results more useful.

(Seriously, try searching for something with personal results hidden. It takes more digging to find content that’s most relevant to you.)

It’s been the suburbification of the internet, not just social media, that has stripped away some of the diversity. Social media is one factor, not the root cause. Given the human tendency to seek out like-minded people, I believe the suburbification of the web was inevitable.

That doesn’t mean you can’t still visit the city.