September 13, 2008

Don’t let flocking make you stupid.

Y’all? Sorry I haven’t been around much. I’m doing this work-and-school thing, you know? And all my blog-reading time has been completely soaked up. But I did want to respond to something from over in yesterday’s open thread, where Jake wrote,

I mean this in all seriousness, since I was seven when Dukakis coughed up a 30 point lead. Is this the beginning of a meltdown, or is this something where people who see this as ridiculous on its face [are] just having a really good time with this?

I’m in Spain and kind of self-select my media through RSS. What kind of serious discussion is this getting Stateside?

and Cindy replied,

Jake, after 8 years of Bush/Cheney, it takes a lot of stupid to bring on a meltdown. I will say, though, that I was happy to find colleagues at work discussing the interview when I arrived today, and it was featured on NPR this morning.

So. At school on Tuesday, in a class that has a different guest speaker every week, we had a great session with Ethan Zuckerman, whose basic argument was that while the Internet provides us with this unprecedented ability to exchange ideas with people from all over the world, in fact what tends to happen is that we hang out online with people who have very similar lifestyles, values, and opinions as ourselves. And so sometimes we don’t realize that everybody else doesn’t think the way we do until it’s too late. He gave as an example the profound astonishment and disappointment of Howard Dean supporters in 2004. Insert your candidate of choice here.

Ethan’s preferred word for this flocking tendency is homophily, “a remarkably useful term, a compact word that succinctly expresses the idea that ‘birds of a feather flock together’—that you’re likely to befriend, talk to, work with and share ideas with people who’ve got common ethnic, religious and economic background with you.”

He goes on, in a blog post that covers much of what we heard in his talk,

Why is homophily a trap? Cass Sunstein argues that it can polarize us—in Infotopia, he cites a study he helped conduct that demonstrates that deliberation of political issues with like-minded people leads subjects to a more politically polarized stance. From this, and from a close reading of political polarization in the blogosphere, he argues that the Internet may make it easier for us to share information with likeminded individuals, and that in a political context, this could be a bad thing.

I’ve made a much less persuasive and elegant argument summarized by the aphorism “Homophily can make you stupid.” My argument, basically, is that it’s possible to miss huge trends, changes and opportunities by talking solely to people who agree with you. I use myself as an exemplar of this sort of stupidity—I found myself so baffled by the results of the 2004 US Presidential election that I invited Republicans to come have a beer with me to explain what they were thinking. (One did. Thanks, Ian.) If homophily is capable of misleading Americans about local politics, just imagine what we fail to understand about Egypt, Pakistan and Fiji by virtue of not consuming media recommended by people from those places?

There’s a lot more where that came from; you should read Ethan’s whole post, and check out the links, as well. There’s a lot of text over there, but I think—because we have this wonderful, cozy homophilic relationship—that you’ll find it worthwhile. And take a look at Global Voices, the website Ethan cofounded that aggregates news from outside the United States—news that is extremely scarce in the U.S. media, online and off:


So . . . my point is . . . we may not be qualified to say whether this issue is getting any serious discussion. Coverage on NPR doesn’t mean shit, because who listens to NPR? We do. (Well, you do; I don’t do radio.) You know, we liberals. And those other people are listening to Rush, and watching O’Reilly, and nodding along and asking, “Yeah, why can’t those stupid liberals see what’s right in front of their faces?” By not talking across this political divide, which has been getting wider and wider over the last eight years, we’re saying, “I hope that the people on the other side are even more unjustifiably deluded about their candidates’ chances than I am.” We’re guessing. We’re betting. We’re sticking our fingers in our ears and singing, “La la la la la I can’t hear you.”

Put another way, we’re not swinging any voters by sitting here talking about what a fucking laughingstock/monster Sarah Palin is. We could be raging about her to people who don’t think she’s ridiculous. We could be finding out why they don’t think she’s ridiculous, and why they don’t think a John McCain presidency would be disastrous for this country. And maybe we’ll both learn something. Have you had a beer with a Republican lately?

For my part, I know all of, like, two. My brother is one of them, and I’m ashamed to say that I don’t know anything about his take on this election. I mean, I’m assuming that he’s planning to vote for John McCain, because he’s perpetually defying what seems to me to be plain fucking common sense. But he’s not doing it just to exasperate me, and he’s not a stupid person. He also is not a religious fundamentalist, is not an oil company executive, is not a hayseed, and probably doesn’t equate a fetus with an adult. We went to the same schools through twelfth grade, watched the same TV shows, listened to the same records, had a lot of the same teachers, and were raised by the same parents. Yet as far as I know, our political opinions could not be more different. As far as I know. I don’t know, because I don’t bother talking with him about it, because I know he thinks I’m an idiot for thinking differently from him, and why should I try to have a serious discussion with someone who thinks I’m an idiot?

Because I think I have to, and not just because I don’t want McCain to win this election. Because after the election, whatever the result, we’re going to have to find a way to depolarize this country before it tears itself apart.

I’m going to talk to him, and I’m going to try to listen.

Dear Clusterflock, what are you going to do?

* How News Shapes Our World” by Alisa Miller, Public Radio International, This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


  1. Sheila Ryan on September 13th, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    India, dear India, it is so damn good that you’ve stopped by. (I was wondering what was up, what with school and all.)

    In answer to your question: right this instant, I couldn’t say. But I have been thinking that maybe this is the the time in my life I might do well just to take off sixty days and do some Obama campaign work in my adjoining swing states of Wisconsin and Iowa.

  2. ITPindia » Preaching to the flock on September 13th, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    […] just posted a long rant at Clusterflock about the perils of homophily, per Ethan Zuckerman’s talk in Applications on […]

  3. Karl B. on September 13th, 2008 at 8:22 pm

    This is the best post I’ve read here in a long time. Thanks.

  4. Daryl Scroggins on September 13th, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    Good to see you, India. I was wondering what you were up to, with great hopes for your health and happiness.

    Your post here makes me wonder how many people there are who, because they blog, don’t also engage with many others “out in the world.” Surely there are many people who sit by the computer all day, every day, as if they live in a cave. But I don’t think that being part of an online community means that one is destined to begin sucking one’s thumb and hiding in the bathroom at work. Seeking out like-minded people is often a means of recharging and avoiding despair, which then helps when one speaks with strangers at the coffee shop or with one’s relatives who don’t think much about political matters one way or the other. I tend to think that the advantages of being aware of and participating in online communities generally outweight the risk of isolation–of being, in the end, out of touch with the “real” world. It is true that real contact with a diverse group of people leads to a more accurate view of opinions–in the area one visits. But when it comes to national politics, might this sample likewise lead to a skewed view of how the nation is likely to vote? Here in Texas, for instance, the (non) recession hasn’t hit as hard because of residual oil and gas production. So do concerns about the economy play here in the same way they play in Detroit? People who want a government that is better and much more accountable than the one we’ve had for the last eight years need to get out in the world far and wide–and sometimes communicating on the web is an excellent way to achieve some of this aim.

  5. Michael Grant Smith on September 13th, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    Don’t worry, India, I was stupid before I got here.

    We do tend to immerse ourselves in what’s comfortable and agreeable, don’t we?

    I have more than a couple of people in my life who provide viewpoints in opposition to my own. They are certainly entitled to their own asshole opinions.

    I’ve mentioned before that I work with a bunch of braindead Republicans. They aren’t even activists or “fundamentalists.” They’re more like lazy, casual conservatives. Don’t take my gun, stop raising taxes, more God everywhere, that kind of stuff.

    I’m on their email lists, so I get the Photoshopped bits that mock Obama, and the witty jokes about Hillary Clinton or Oprah Winfrey.

    These guys all want to fuck Sarah Palin pretty badly, so I guess she can count on their votes.

    My coworkers’ rhetoric notwithstanding, I still force myself to read the anti-libtard comments on online news stories. I read some conservative blogs, just to see what kind of goofy stuff is coming down the road. It’s not very good.

    I’ve decided that the modern Republican Party has tapped into the lowest aspects of human character; the selfish, hard, sneering side. The part that watches you drop a twenty dollar bill on the ground but they wait until you leave before they pick it up. The kind that goes to church on Sunday and while listening to the sermon, dreams of boning the pastor’s 16-year-old daughter.

    I’m not saying all conservatives are like that. There are plenty of liberal douches out there as well. The lack of intelligent discourse is numbing. The banality of the media is stifling.

    One of my friends at work confided to me that he was a lifetime Democrat but had voted for Bush twice. He told me he liked Obama at first but was now leaning towards McCain because of the “experience” issue. I talked to him about politics for forty-five minutes after I clocked out on Friday.

    I said, “Do whatever you want. I can’t change your mind. Just get online and really look at McCain’s record. Look at it like it’s a timeline. Decide if his heroism as a POW means jack in the context of the campaign he’s running — the negative campaign he said he’d never run.” I hope my friend spends some time on Wikipedia and thinks about it a little bit.

    I think this was my longest and most boring clusterflock comment ever. Thanks.

    Hey, India, don’t be gone so long.

  6. Rick Neece on September 13th, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    Michael Grant, for my part, you’re welcome to be as long and boring as you want whenever you want to be. Thank you. Thank you, too, India. This very subject has been a house topic more than once in the last few weeks. Here in the JenseNeece house, we live in a rarified atmosphere.

  7. Kris on September 13th, 2008 at 10:34 pm

    India, I’m really glad that you posted this. Zuckerman’s thesis certainly captured the ongoing disconnect between the Political Science Department that I worked in for seven years and the broader general public. It was always embarrassing how tremendously wrong their electoral predictions were, primarily because most did not emerge from a comfortable cocoon where everybody agreed with each other, and no effort was ever extended to learn what the rest of the state/country was thinking, and why they were thinking it. Th fact that I’m talking about (for the most part) tenured academics who are supposedly empowered by the nature of their work to strive for on objective position made it all the more infuriating.

    This is what makes me so uncomfortable with the constant refrain of we’re smart/they’re dumb narrative that emerges from such ideological polarisation. We have a similar occurrence here in Tasmania (only this primarily seems to occur within the third party, the Greens; and has a particularly environmental edge). Just as in the US though, it shuts down any chance of understanding why people feel/think/vote the way they do. It reinforces a ‘group think’ mentality that all too often results in bad decision-making.

    The neat, easy (but ultimately too simplistic and unhelpful) solution: “they must be stupid” is even more unhelpful when both sides resort to it. Governing is supposed to be about achieving compromise between competing interests, and at the end of the electoral horse race, governments are supposed to govern for everyone, not just their supporters. Simplistically dismissing the (sometimes legitimate/sometimes not) concerns, beliefs, needs and wants of half the voters with “they’re stupid” makes that unlikely to happen.

    The solution?

    Answers on a postcard.

  8. Daryl Scroggins on September 13th, 2008 at 11:34 pm

    Kris, ideological polarization surely doesn’t help either side, as you say, but while we are wondering why people think what they do it’s good to ask why people tend to polarize things in this way. Often it’s because the stakes are high and willingness to listen and possibly change is low, and frustration sets in. But this fact doesn’t necessarily have a bearing on which view is actually tenable. Frustration often makes it less likely that extreme views will be examined more closely by those who hold them–but sometimes frustration is a function of the fact that one view–even when it is broadly held–is wrong. If I try to stop a mob that is set on lynching a person, should I worry that I might be adding to a polarization of views? In American politics, the slinging of the phrase “we’re smart and they’re dumb” flies in both directions–not just from people who make frequent use of computers. And when one looks at such things as the easy ridicule for the very notion of community organizing, brought out at the Republican convention recently, one might be wrong to call them stupid but “generally reprehensible in their assent” doesn’t seem far from the mark. Is this polarizing? Will not standing up and objecting to such things help, or will it simply leave the ground uncontested? Somehow saying “well at least I was a nice guy about everything” doesn’t seem like the thinking that finally managed to put an end to a once broadly accepted practice of slavery.

  9. Kris on September 14th, 2008 at 3:46 am

    Of course there exist objective right and wrong, as well as good and bad policy, there always will. That said, I’m not sure that any issue up for debate in this election is as starkly black and white as the cases of lynching or slavery.

    Equally, you have to stake your tent and argue your case, but looking at the abolitionist movement as a guide, the most effective abolitionists (e.g. William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and others) all passionately argued their cause, without fear, but with an eloquence and (importantly) tolerance and respect that eventually won the day. The British abolitionist cause made special effort to engage with and rebut each fear/reason that underwrote the pro-slavery movement, and not simply rely on the ‘force of will/right/morality’. They set out an alternative vision and argued it well. One can do no more (short of war).

    Maybe I’m reading the wrong people, but there’s an awful lot of commentary (from both sides of the fence) that doesn’t really get much beyond “of course we are right. Jeez what dicks/morons/arseholes/bitches those other guys are”. This is even more infuriating when it comes with the holier-than-thou certainty that accompanies righteous anger. Again, you can find this on both camps. I realise that too many this is a ‘line in the sand’ moment, and that they feel that they are ‘fighting fire with fire’, maybe they’re right, but I can’t help feel that they’re taking the fight down in the mud and consequently look more like their opponents than they might care too. Here, I’m thinking of some of the commentary on Bristol Palin or Sarah Palin’s last child. That’s worthy of the worst Rush Limbagh-esque bile that you can find. For example, in the past I have had some time for Andrew Sullivan’s work, I can barely read the guy now on some of his columns of late.

    Another point that I’d make concerns this idea of righteous indignation that becomes anger. If I can pick an area where we can be a little more certain of a ‘just’ position and reflect on the civil rights movement. I think that voices as diverse as MLK, Stokely Carmichael, Du Bois and Elijah Muhammad all had a right to be frustrated and angry about the state of civil rights in the US, and each chose their own particular path to rectifying that. Some of these paths – however understandable – were in the long run unhelpful to the greater cause in a democratic context. The Southern Strategy mentioned in another post (shifting the balance of power from Democrats to Republicans) directly played off what was seen (and easily manipulated) as an uncompromising position, and prompted fear rather than reflection. As soon as you get to a position where the opposition says, “we can’t work with these guys”, you are in trouble. The entire US political system is set up towards institutional gridlock, and like it or not, the profound reformer doesn’t have a hope. The conciliator does.

  10. Daryl Scroggins on September 14th, 2008 at 9:10 am

    Well said, Kris. A trenchant analysis. I would say, though, that issues such as the Bush Doctrine of preemptive strikes against nations that might be wishing us harm is one that might rise to a level comparable to past practices featuring racial strife–and this would be more likely to be seen as such if one’s own country was the target of such an attack. Also, I would say that a willingness to torture “others” is right up there. That said, I do think that Obama is taking an honorable approach that tends to highlight the extremes of Republicans who don’t care what is said or done if it gets the job done. It’s a sort of Martin Luther King strategy: make them show their viciousness, and many will be ashamed to be identified with them.

    I guess I’m just wary of calls for civility, since as often as not they come from those who actually wish to blunt the force of oposition while they carry on with the same strident tactics. I remember an unrelated example that sticks in my mind from the past. I was a martial arts instructor for a number of years (back before it was painful just getting out of bed in the morning!); I would teach classes and then all of the instructors and assistant instructors would hang around the dojo for hours, sparring. In those days there was no padding except for thin foam pads on hands and feet, and full contact was allowed. One of my fellow teachers always paused, just as we were about to fight, and siad “Oh, I’ve got bruised ribs on this side, so go easy on them please.” The next time it would be “Oh, I’ve got a slight concussion, so go easy on shots to the head, okay?” Each time it was something different. After a while I realized two things: Trying to abide by his requests was distracting in ways that made me less effective–and he wasn’t avoiding the same areas when he came at me. I put a stop to that practice finally by just saying–let’s just fight when you’re well. I see lots of this tactic being used by Republicans, who will tell big lies and then instantly call for more honesty in the process.

  11. Cooper Renner on September 14th, 2008 at 10:18 am

    I’m wondering if it’s simply part of the “conservative” mind-set to be afraid and to look, therefore, for security figures. (Whether they actually provide security is another matter.) People who know good and well that Bush has ordered wire-tapping and all of that stuff, but don’t care, if it helps keep them safe. They can’t imagine that he would do anything bad with the information, and they’re not criminals, so they don’t care that their privacy is invaded, ‘as long as we’re safe.’ Abstractions like freedom from government intervention in mental or psychological ways don’t rate with them. As long as the government doesn’t take their guns or tell them how to mow their lawns. It’s helpful, perhaps, to remember that not all of the 18th-century colonists wanted to revolt against Britain. It was a bunch of liberals who did that.

  12. …My heart’s in Accra » links for 2008-09-14 on September 14th, 2008 at 10:31 am

    […] Don%u2019t let flocking make you stupid. : clusterflock India from Clusterflock offers a nice overview of the (dis)connect talk I gave at NYU last week (tags: mine globalism xenophilia disconnect nyu) […]

  13. Daryl Scroggins on September 14th, 2008 at 10:48 am

    I think you’re right about the conservative mind-set here, Cooper. It’s like many of them believe that the real function of government is to relieve them of the need to even be concerned with politics. Big campaign seasons just stir up vague fears, and the “best” candidates turn out to be those who offer quick relief from vague discomfort–and vague assurances get the job done. Pandering to this desire to avoid engagement seems to be a strong suit in Republican tactics.

  14. Cindy Scroggins on September 14th, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    Oh, India, I’m so glad to hear from you again–even if you called me stupid!

    I probably spend as much time reading conservative op-eds and letters to the editor as liberal ones; I very much want to understand the thinking in the Republican base. As you know, Texas is one of the reddest states in the union–I’m constantly surrounded by people in meetings at the hospital who assume everyone in the room is Republican. I have tried to open dialogues in the past, only to be met with horror–and I mean horror–by others in the room, who act as if a spy has infiltrated their midst. These are people who believe that any successful white woman who proclaims herself to be a liberal Democrat must be, at some level, a Satanist or a Communist or both. I’m not kidding, India.

    In discussing these kinds of sociological issues at work, we might want to consider that we aren’t all living in the liberal wonderland that is New York City. To find people openly discussing their liberal views at this point in Texas is a big deal.

  15. Sheila Ryan on September 14th, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    And thank you for the Global Voices link, India.

  16. Amanda Mae Meyncke on September 14th, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    All I can say is almost every single person I know is a Republican. I live with Republicans, I went to a significantly conservative school which I am still involved with in many ways. I am an absolute minority in real life situations I find myself in, so sometimes it’s nice to hear other people talk about politics here, because my real life runs the gamut between rabid McCain supporters and people who think Bush has done an “amazing” job, to… well, actually its mostly that.

    So this is a bit of a respite.

  17. Sheila Ryan on September 14th, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    Live. And learn.

    Since my flight from Texas way back when, I have led a sheltered life, mostly in Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin.

    In fact, many people in my various milieus consider me a bit suspect. “You some kind of libertarian or something?”

    (“No. I’m an archivist.”

    Where’s my rubber chicken?)

  18. Kris on September 14th, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    My Grandfather was a very active member of the Australian Communist Party, and both sides of the family were what you’d call (in an Australian/British context) rusted on “Old Labor”. As a kid, I couldn’t fathom why anyone who wasn’t wealthy would vote for the conservative party (helpfully called the Liberals).

    But really, I’m still reeling from being surrounded by anarchists, and people still silly enough to identify as Maoists from my time at uni (we’re talking mid-nineties Maoists with Che t-shirts and Free Tibet stickers, another post-ironic moment). They put me off ideological certainty for life.

    I would imagine that my self-identification of “pragmatic social democrat” would put me in Wellstone territory in a US context. Not particularly welcome at Republican BBQs, it sounds.

  19. Sheila Ryan on September 14th, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    Kris, your “pragmatic social democrat” would confuse the average American perhaps as much as my own “progressive who doesn’t believe in progress”.

  20. Kris on September 14th, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    “Progressive who doesn’t believe in progress”?

    Does that make you a “nihilist archivist”? There’s a really, really long existentialist Czech novel there…

  21. Sheila Ryan on September 14th, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    “Nihilist archivist” comes damn close to it, Kris.

    And I get what you’re at with that notion about a Czech novel. But it may work better to imagine me as the jaded hero/heroine of a film noir.

    (Off to the side, one of my favorite political labels is that applied to himself, with tongue only slightly in cheek, by Max Beerbohm: “Tory anarchist”.)

  22. Daryl Scroggins on September 14th, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    Kris–this reminded me of a splendid novel–Ludvik Vaculik’s The Guinea Pigs.

  23. Kris on September 14th, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    I can see “Tory anarchist”. To be honest, that’s always been “libertarian” to me. Australia has a lot less distrust of government historically though, too much peace and quiet you see.

    I can’t complain though. During my brief flirtation with the arts, I once endeavoured to get up a concept “surrealistic realism”, and then discovered that Baudrillard beat me to it by many years. Took the wind out of my sails, I’ll tell you.

  24. Sheila Ryan on September 14th, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    I know the feeling, Kris. The French have been taking the wind out of my sails for years now.

  25. Kris on September 14th, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    Vaculík is supremely underappreciated, and The Guinea Pigs is a favourite. I’ve always thought of myself as a Czech born in the wrong place.

    Actually, it was only a couple of months ago that I eventually got around to reading The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War, after years and years of putting it off. It was well worth the wait!

  26. Sheila Ryan on September 14th, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    “A Czech born in the wrong place.” That’s almost amusing, in –you know — a black-humorous kind of way.

  27. Kris on September 14th, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    Sheila, is there really any other kind of humour?

  28. Sheila Ryan on September 14th, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    No. Funny-ha ha is funny-cruel, at least to some extent. Otherwise it’s not funny.

  29. Sheila Ryan on September 14th, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    I mean, when my Galveston friend wrote to tell me about looters gutting her house before it was flooded — and headed the message “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Well.

  30. Andrew Simone on September 14th, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    India, you always seem to do my favorite posts.

  31. tuscadero on September 16th, 2008 at 7:17 am

    wow, very important post. thank you. I’m an unapologetic progressive democrat and after the last 8 years I shied away from getting into political discussions because people made me want to scream. but recently, on a few occasions, I swallowed hard and tried to understand why one friend still believes there was good evidence to invade Iraq and why another believes in her heart that Obama is a “secret Muslim.” Did I mention I live in Massachusetts? The most liberal state in the Union, except for maybe California! It was so frustrating to hear these people who I love, who I consider intelligent on most other points, voicing these thoughts that—to me—were pure ignorance.
    I kept my temper, and suggested evidence to the contrary, explained where I was coming from, I can’t say I changed any minds, but I didn’t leave their assumptions unchallenged. The only point when I offended either of them, is when I apologized to the Iraq war supporter for discussing politics. He had actually enjoyed the conversation and was tired of people pussyfooting around for fear of offending.
    Pop a hole in the echo chamber, I say. Let some air in the vacuums.