Tribes of the internet

It’s only natural to think that a revolutionary communications technology like the internet will help break down barriers between people and bring the world closer together. But that’s not the only scenario, or even the most likely one. The internet turns everything, from knowledge-gathering to community-building, into a series of tiny transactions – clicks – that are simple in isolation yet extraordinarily complicated in the aggregate. Research shows that very small biases, when magnified through thousands or millions or billions of choices, can turn into profound schisms. There’s reason to believe, or at least to fear, that this effect, inherent in large networks, may end up turning the internet into a polarizing force rather than a unifying one.

In a 1971 article titled “Dynamic Models of Segregation,” Thomas Schelling, winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for economics, offered a fascinating reappraisal of the segregation of communities along racial lines, illustrating the way biases are magnified through a kind of network effect. If asked what lies behind racial segregation, most of us would likely point to prejudice and discrimination. But Schelling, through a simple experiment, showed that extreme segregation may have a much more innocent cause. Mark Buchanan summarized Schelling’s findings in his 2002 book Nexus:

Schelling began by imagining a society in which most people truly wish to live in balanced and racially integrated communities, with just one minor stipulation: most people would prefer not to end up living in a neighborhood in which they would be in the extreme minority. A white man might have black friends and colleagues and might be happy to live in a predominantly black neighborhood. Just the same, he might prefer not to be one of the only white people living there. This attitude is hardly racist and may indeed be one that many people – black, white, Hispanic, Chinese, or what have you – share. People naturally enjoy living among others with similar tastes, backgrounds, and values.

Nevertheless, innocent individual preferences of this sort can have startling effects, as Schelling discovered by drawing a grid of squares on a piece of paper and playing an illuminating game. On his grid, he first placed at random an equal number of black and white pieces, to depict an integrated society of two races mingling uniformly. He then supposed that every piece would prefer not to live in a minority of less than, say, 30 percent. So, taking one piece at a time, Schelling checked to see if less than 30 percent of its neighbors were of the same color, and if this was the case, he let that piece migrate to the nearest open square. He then repeated this procedure over and over until finally no piece lived in a local minority of less than 30 percent. To his surprise, Schelling discovered that at this point the black and white pieces not only had become less uniformly mixed but also had come to live in entirely distinct enclaves. In other words, the slight preference of the individual to avoid an extreme minority has the paradoxical but inexorable effect of obliterating mixed communities altogether.

Buchanan sums up the lesson of Schelling’s experiment: “Social realities are fashioned not only by the desires of people but also by the action of blind and more or less mechanical forces – in this case forces that can amplify slight and seemingly harmless personal preferences into dramatic and troubling consequences.” (You can download a piece of Windows-only software to perform the Schelling experiment yourself.) In the real world, with its mortgages and schools and jobs and moving vans, the “mechanical forces” of segregation move fairly slowly; there are brakes on the speed with which we pull up stakes and change where we live. In internet communities, there are no such constraints. Making a community-defining decision is as simple as clicking on a link – adding a feed to your blog reader, say, or a friend to your social network. Given the presence of a slight bias to be connected to people similar to ourselves, the segregation effect would thus tend to happen much faster – and with even more extreme consequences – on the internet.

This is all theoretical, of course, but it’s easy to see how it follows logically from Schelling’s findings. And there is other evidence that the Internet may end up being a polarizing force. In a recent academic paper, called “Global Village or Cyber-Balkans? Modeling and Measuring the Integration of Electronic Communities,” Eric Brynjolfsson, of MIT, and Marshall Van Alstyne, of Boston University, describe the results of a model that measured how individuals’ online choices influence community affiliation. “Although the conventional wisdom has stressed the integrating effects of [internet] technology,” they write, in introducing their study, “we examine critically the claim that a global village is the inexorable result of increased connectivity and develop a suite of formal measures to address this question.”

They note that, because there are limits to how much information we can process and how many people we can communicate with (we have “bounded rationality,” to use the academic jargon), we naturally have to use filters to screen out ideas and contacts. On the internet, these filters are becoming ever more sophisticated, which means we can focus our attention – and our communities – ever more precisely. “Our analysis,” Brynjolfsson and Van Alstyne write, “suggests that automatic search tools and filters that route communications among people based on their views, reputations, past statements or personal characteristics are not necessarily benign in their effects.” Diversity in the physical world “can give way to virtual homogeneity as specialized communities coalesce across geographic boundaries.”

They stress that “balkanization” is not the only possible result of filtering. “On the other hand,” they write, “preferences for broader knowledge, or even randomized information, can also be indulged. In the presence of [information technology], a taste for diverse interaction leads to greater integration – underscoring how the technology serves mainly to amplify individual preferences. IT does not predetermine one outcome.” Nevertheless, they write that their model indicates, in an echo of Schelling’s findings, that “other factors being equal, all that is required to reduce integration in most cases is that preferred interactions are more focused than existing interactions.” If, in other words, we have even a small inclination to prefer like-minded views and people, we will tend toward creating balkanized online communities.

Such fragmentation of association tends to lead to an ever-greater polarization of thinking, which in turn can erode civic cohesiveness, as the authors explain:

With the customized access and search capabilities of IT, individuals can focus their attention on career interests, music and entertainment that already match their defined profiles, and they can arrange to read only news and analysis that align with their preferences. Individuals empowered to screen out material that does not conform to their existing preferences may form virtual cliques, insulate themselves from opposing points of view, and reinforce their biases. Authors of collaborative filtering technology have long recognized its ability to both foster tribalism as well as a global village.

Indulging these preferences can have the perverse effect of intensifying and hardening pre-existing biases. Thus people who oppose free trade are likely, after talking to one another, to oppose it more fiercely; people who fear gun control appear, after discussion, more likely to take action; and juries that want to send a message seem, after deliberation, to set higher damage awards. The reasons include information cascades and oversampled arguments. In one, an accumulating, and unchallenged, body of evidence leads members to adopt group views in lieu of their own. In the other, members of a limited argument pool are unwilling or unable to construct persuasive counterarguments that would lead to more balanced views. The effect is not merely a tendency for members to conform to the group average but a radicalization in which this average moves toward extremes.

Increasing the number of information sources available may worsen this effect, as may increasing the attention paid to these information sources … Internet users can seek out interactions with like-minded individuals who have similar values and thus become less likely to trust important decisions to people whose values differ from their own. This voluntary balkanization and the loss of shared experiences and values may be harmful to the structure of democratic societies as well as decentralized organizations.

It’s too early in the history of the internet to know whether this disturbing scenario will come to pass, a point that the authors emphasize. But we need only look at, say, the tendency toward extremism – and distrust of those holding opposing views – among the most popular political bloggers to get a sense of how balkanization and polarization can emerge in online communities. Brynjolfsson and Van Alstyne end on this note: “We can, and should, explicitly consider what we value as we shape the nature of our networks and infrastructure – with no illusions that a greater sense of community will inexorably result.” Personally, I’m even more fatalistic. I’m not sure we’ll be able to influence the progression of internet communities by tinkering with “our networks and infrastructure.” What will happen will happen. It’s written in our clicks.

15 thoughts on “Tribes of the internet

  1. Vinnie Mirchandani

    Nick, unnecessarily pessimistic. There are people who listen and call in to political talk shows on radio, and there are those who rather listen to NPR or watch CNBC.

    There are political blogs, and then there are topical, professional blogs like in tech. Most of the people who come to tech blogs are either buyers or users or vendors or propsective vendors. It is a virtual bazaar in that sense. Many do not even like political/religious oriented posts on theee sites – you are one of the few bloggers who carries it off well.

    Sure there is crossover but most blog communities that are being formed are on lines of our day to day professional lives…blogs are as fragmented as daily life today…

  2. Greg Linden

    Great post, Nick.

    Filters, such as personalization technology, can be used as a screen, only showing us what we want to see, narrowing our focus, limiting our perception.

    But, as Brynjolfsson and Alstyne say, personalization can also be used to enhance discovery. Personalization can show us things we never would have discovered on our own. Personalization can surface interesting tidbits other people already found and allow us to discover them as well. Personalization can enhance knowledge, learning, and discovery.

    Like any tool, personalization can be used well or poorly. These systems do need to be built with care.

  3. Aaron Swartz

    This idea is known as the thesis, after law prof Cass Sunstein’s 2001 book of that title. In reality, the Internet has exactly the opposite effect, but the book was given an enormous amount of attention by the mass media, which routinely runs campaigns trying to convince people the Internet is dangerous.

    It’s not hard to see why. As Robert McChesney shows in his book The Problem of the Media, political choices crushed smaller media outlets with points of view, creating the fictional omniscient unbiased “objective” persona the news has today. This ability to decide what the public can hear about is extremely powerful and it’s not surprising that the media doesn’t want to give it up without a fight.

    The stories it comes up with, however, are simply myths. Readers of any political blogs know that they have engage with their political opponents far more seriously and frequently than anywhere else in the press. People who read Internet news collections of any sort frequently get pointed to sites with different political views, where they can read someone else’s argument in full, unlike the snippets generally presented by the media. There has not been a single credible piece of evidence that this kind of self-selection is actually happening.

    Yet the media continues to spread the myth, just as it spread myths in its 1980s battle against feminism. Power never wants to give up without a fight.

  4. Neil K

    Maybe collaborative filtering technologies do have some of these prejudice-reinforcing tendencies. But compared to what? I can’t think of any society or institution in human history which is better at exposing people to contrary opinions.

    One might romaticize the cafe societies of bygone days, or the university, or the village square. But they were always a tiny sliver of their societies. And let’s not forget that they used to *stone* people in the village square too.

    And few internet users restrict themselves to just one site! Internet publishing is intensely personal, and nobody is fully orthodox. One of the most popular conservative bloggers agitates for gay marriage.

    I wish we had the problem you suggest we might have. The internet is almost too individualistic. Without physical proximity, or common resources to focus the discussion, debate continues ad infinitum, for its own sake.

  5. Desmond Lee

    Birds of a feather flock together. If you have the Internet you won’t need wings. Look at Schelling’s game in reverse. The relative sizes of the black and white communities (or blue and red for that matter) were fixed. The starting configuration depicts them as dispersed; the final configuration merely shows their relative sizes more clearly. Forget about the subject matter of the game ( racial segregation ) for a minute, concentrate on any sort of binary division, and you conclude that the Internet has nothing to do with encouraging ‘balkanization’. It simply reveals the degree of polarization that already exists and the rate at which it spreads.

    In this respect, if you hold a minority viewpoint it helps you to see more clearly the extent to which you are isolated, but it also tells you where your friends are and provides a means of gaining support.

    If Buddhism, Christianity and Islam had to wait for peripatetic preachers, who travelled mostly on foot, to become as widespread and entrenched as they are, think of how much faster any idea can diffuse via the Internet and embed itself in many different cultures. This works for the egregiously bad ones as well as for the most superb so you may define an optimist as someone who thinks the Internet truly gives wings to thought and a pessimist as one who knows that this is true.

  6. Al Kratzer

    I wonder if the wired generations that are growing up with the Internet as second nature look at the world with the same sense of divisions that those who grew up in the 50s – 80s have.

    An online community can revolve around any interest. If I love Rap music, the online community I’m involved in may contain a rainbow of races, while I physically may live in a neighborhood that is predominantly one or another. From that perspective, the Internet actually helps dissolve the barriers and segregation.

  7. Oskar Shapley

    Very interesting and important.

    p.15 “As geographic access improves, agents seeking similar types forsake local connections.”

    Communication technology allows people to find like-minded individuals, no matter how extreme their views are. By excluding oneself from the opinion of the rest of the society, they re-inforce their prejudices and biases.

    What we have today is a racist, a paranoid leftist, bullettin boards for islamic terrorism fans, etc.

    What we will have in the future will be discussion boards for serial killers and pedophiles, which will only increase their tendencies by making them appear ‘normal’ to the background of the group. I suspect there already are such sites, hidden, passworded and offshore.

  8. erik garrison

    You have written about the “long tail” of the internet. In a commercial sense, the “long tail” of the net allows people to follow associations between products which they deeply identify with (Britney Spears) to products (The Selector) which have legitimate connections to their tastes yet lie far outside the world they might have encountered without the visible associations offered by hyperlinks (see this grpahic on the long tail from Wired).

    The same effects are apparent in noncommercial realms of the net. I’m almost positive that anyone with a strong reaction to one of the postings on this blog would be obliged to at least link to it in their response. Hyperlinks make the assocations, both positive and negative, of our thought visible to us. In doing so they encourage kinds of self reflection which are not associated with the expensive and complicated process of community selection. I’m much more likely to read an article or go to a website of a goup I dislike than decide to live in their community. In its latent ability to open the door for this simple, basic interchange of information, I find it hard to believe that the structure of the net encourages balkanization.

    Links are not tagged positive or negative. They are relatively context free representations of association, a simple, generalized characteristic of relationship which links together all things which draw meaning from one another, even if this meaning is drawn from contrast and exclusion.

  9. Valeri Souchkov

    One important thing before getting to a conclusion: what kind of revolution the Internet brought to the world? People were able to communicate before. They could use phone and send letters to each other. They could read newspapers and samizdat. They could listen to the music, watch TV… And even run satellite videoconferences. The Internet has been evolution, not revolution: it accelerated, improved, perfected the way people communicate and broadcast their messages, as well as broadened the audience involved to communication. But apart from that? In the 1930th, people really believed that appearance of TV would change the world. Did it? Yes, in some way it did, but not too much. People became more informed and that would influence their decisions, but soon TV became mostly entertainment and brainwashing tool.

    A major advantage of the Internet was that it helped remove barriers for those who were unable to communicate and spread their messages: introverts, hesitant people, etc. Real people leaders were always able to find their ways to broadcast their messages and influence minds of large social groups without optic fibers.

    The Internet broadens and amplifies, but does not radically change. But there might be a real danger (perhaps, but perhaps not) if the Internet becomes the only communication and broadcasting channel and in the same form as it is now: then the effect described might happen – people will be locked within their opinion preference circles and might aggressively react to or neglect at all opposite opinions. But doesn’t this happen today in the “offline” world? So my opinion that it does not depend on the Internet, or TV, or radio but on people. Therefore the effect of segregation (as well as integration) will certainly be boosted by the Internet, but I think it won’t be too significant to change the way societies live and act; or the effect of integration will bring things to equilibrium.

  10. John Gauntt

    I agree with the general premis and ask, what is the difference between Internet and all previous information technology platforms? The catechism we teach about the printing press was that it revolutionized the diffusion of thought and effectively broke the back of ecclesiastical monopoly on knowledge in the West. Less commented upon was its use for printing virulent anti-Catholic or anti-Protestant tracts that fanned religious hatred and wars. Hitler’s use of cinema to spread anti-Jewish bile, Hollywood’s wholesale plunge into racist anti-Japanese propaganda, the ediface of “Socialist Realism” that ran the gamut of print, television, and art, or Al-Quaeda’s mastery of web video testify to the general amorality of technical platforms for making us “good”. The Internet is no different than those other platforms. Indeed, I don’t find the tribal nature of the Internet disturbing in the least because for every monstrous use of it there is some kid on a lonely North Dakota plain who finds a tribe where he can belong. For the vast majority of our history, the tyranny of the physical neighborhood has defined those who “fit in” from those who don’t. I’m confident that overall, there is enough of a balance of tribes at the system level. What I find TEDIOUS is the continued hand wringing of elites over the fact that this democratic technical platform is being used democratically by geniuses and cranks in near equal measure. The fact that there are some truly bad people in this world who want to use this technology for truly bad ends does not take away from the fundamental fact that if not Internet, it would have been something else. Tribalism is older than the pyramids and focusing excessively on a standards-driven system of Internetworking takes away from the far more important task of countering ideas with ideas, rather than complaining about how triablists can reach each other quicker over Internet than the traditional telephone.

  11. Christian Pecaut

    Solving problems of human harm is what technology and the internet do NOT have.

    They serve primarily those who have, whatever their whims are — whether knowledge or porn.

    The problem, as I see it, is making SOLVING the central high-level organizing principle of the entire network.

    At the moment, it’s central purpose is extracting as much profit as possible, while doing nice “infinite expansion” type advancements. (i.e. search)

    The problem is that engineers, mostly, only know how to serve their bosses — that’s the heirarchical environment of the schools that taught them their skills, and the companies they work in.

    We need to have our FIRST priority on the people who are suffering — and solving, with these great resources, our information – architectural goal.

    I think the main obstacle to the big boys of tech financce capital figuring this out is political.

    Basically the GOP is running the society on the basis of a massive deception, which all the engineers, CEOs, and finance capital mavens buy and support.

    This keeps their “innovations” within the realm of consumer capitalism.

    Here’s the political solution:

    I have the technical one too — if I could find someone to work with me to make it.

  12. Josh

    Personally, I don’t like using the word ‘tribe’ in a negatively connotated context, because I see it as a positive social order. I too regard the internet as being made up of many tribes, and even as being a tribe in itself, in the sense that it allows social interactions that have their own social codes, giving the individual the ability to express what they like within their shared personal boundaries. People who communicate on the internet do not undergo “social contracts”. The internet also allows for cultural and material exchanges outside of government systems and regulations. The value of material things, on sites such as ebay, is determined by individuals and not by societal rules. Stories, Music and Ideas become shared with a feeling of community on sites like myspace, not whored out as the bitches of copyright and capitalism. And all this is trickling out from the virtual space and filling in the gaps of the West’s cultural void.

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