An excerpt from Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think starts by restating Mark Granovetter’s arguments on the strength of weak ties in social networks — they connect you to people unlike yourself — and ends with me, of all people, talking about the way to make sense of the torrential stream of communications in a social world:
Clive Thompson via Wired
Mind you, acquiring a network that feeds you surprising and valuable knowledge doesn’t happen on its own. Like most of our new digital tools, crafting a good set of weak links takes work. If we don’tengage in that sort of work, it has repercussions. It’s easier to lean into homophily, connecting online to people who are demographically similar: the same age, class, ethnicity and race, even the same profession.
Homophily is deeply embedded in our psychology, and as Eli Pariser adroitly points out inThe Filter Bubble, digital tools can make homophily worse, narrowing our worldview.
For example, Facebook’s news feed analyzes which contacts you most pay attention to and highlights their updates in your “top stories” feed, so you’re liable to hear more and more often from the same small set of people. (Worse, as I’ve discovered, it seems to drop from view the people whom you almost never check in on — which means your weakest ties gradually vanish from sight.) As Pariser suggests, we can fight homophily with self-awareness—noticing our own built-in biases, cultivating contacts that broaden our world, and using tools that are less abstruse and covert than Facebook’s hidden algorithms.
If you escape homophily, there’s another danger to ambient awareness: It can become simply too interesting and engaging. A feed full of people broadcasting clever thoughts and intriguing things to read is, like those seventeenth-century coffee shops, a scene so alluring it’s impossible to tear yourself away. Like many others, I’ve blown hours doing nothing of value (to my bank account, anyway) while careening from one serendipitous encounter to another.
Others have complained that ambient awareness stokes their FOMO — “fear of missing out,” the persistent dread that there’s some hashtagged “happening” they’re missing out onrightthis instant, a sort of hipster recency paranoia on overdrive.
The trick here is mindfulness. We need to notice when our dallying in the ambient world is taking us away from other things we ought to be doing. Stowe Boyd, a pioneer in social media, once compared ambient signals to a stream of water. You go to a stream to take a sip — not to try to inhale the entire thing. “You take a drink, and you walk away until you’re thirsty again,” he told me.