Diversifying your online world

June 20, 2013

In a new book, MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman asserts that we need to overcome the Internet’s sorting tendencies and create tools to make ourselves “digital cosmopolitans.”

The Internet promises a seemingly frictionless way of connecting individuals from around the globe. But in reality, that’s not what happens online: Instead, we clump together with people similar to ourselves, and have those affinities reinforced by tools that guide us to other people or products that resemble those we already know.

Perhaps we can change that, though, and better incorporate new, international perspectives and knowledge into our everyday lives. That, at least, is the thesis of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, a new book by MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman, published this month by W.W. Norton.

“There was this early promise on the Internet that no one cares if you’re coming from Japan or Jordan or Jamaica, as along as you have something to add to the conversation,” says Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media and principal research scientist at the MIT Media Lab. “But it seemed to me that we’ve been getting narrower and narrower views of the world [online]. I wasn’t even getting the perspective I’d get from a good newspaper.”

As Zuckerman details in the book, this is not just his impression. Many studies have shown that social, political and cultural filtering occurs routinely on the Internet — not to mention filtering by gender and language.

Zuckerman’s aim — in the book and in his research group at MIT — is to encourage researchers to build tools encouraging people to explore the world, engage others and move beyond their normal social circuits.

“We’re still well below what a really level world would look like,” Zuckerman says.  “The good news is, we can still get it right. There is time to jump in and try to make it better.”

Ghana, gone from the news

Zuckerman’s interest in diversifying online culture arose, in part, from his experiences working at a nonprofit organization in Ghana about a dozen years ago.

“Ghana had a remarkable election in 2000, free and fair,” Zuckerman says, referring to the country’s first-ever democratic transfer of power. “From the perspective of people following Africa, we thought this was amazing news, people should be celebrating. But no one really noticed in the U.S., [apart from] The New York Times. I got very interested in what we do, and don’t, pay attention to.”

Among other efforts, Zuckerman co-founded the Global Voices project, an online citizen-media site relaying news and information from around the world.

“We’re not just filtering politically and culturally, we’re filtering on a national basis,” Zuckerman says.

To be sure, one might ask: Why is having a global perspective desirable? Zuckerman offers a few answers, including basic civic engagement at a time of, for instance, globalized supply chains that undergird the products we buy.

“If we’re going to depend on stuff built by people from all over the globe, there’s a point at which we might have to pay attention to the issues and politics,” Zuckerman says. “Suddenly people have a lot of questions about buying clothes [made] in Bangladesh. These are the sorts of issues that make you realize that if you don’t have more of a global perspective, you’re missing opportunities to improve things, you’re not anticipating dangers.”

Another point Zuckerman emphasizes is that cognitive diversity is useful for both creativity and problem-solving — and that kind of diversity is more readily available to people who step outside their cognitive comfort zones.

“Historically a great deal of creative thought has come from engagement with people in other cultures,” Zuckerman says; his book cites examples from music, politics and corporate life.

The initial response to “Rewire” has been positive; a review in Bookforum called it a “patient and thoughtful” assessment of the Internet’s realities and potential.

What is to be done?

But if we’re missing an opportunity to become better global citizens, how can we change that? The current approach of Zuckerman, and his graduate students, is to create online tools that nudge Internet users toward new perspectives.

“Do you really want to use Facebook to help you track down every elementary school friend you ever had?” Zuckerman asks. “Or can we push you in new directions and introduce you to, say, people from other parts of the world who have things in common with you?”

One tool Zuckerman’s group is working on does this with Twitter, by analyzing the composition of the feeds people follow, and then recommending more feeds — mostly ones only slightly similar to your own user profile.

“A conventional recommendation system would say, ‘Let me find the people who recommend the same things, whatever they found that you didn’t find, you’re going to love,’” Zuckerman says. “What you probably want to do is build a recommendation system that’s about 30 degrees different. If you’re a secular liberal and you get links to a religious conservative, there’s a pretty good chance your response will be, ‘Why do I want to pay attention to this?’ But handing me links from a religious progressive might push me in an interesting direction.”

Other tools, Zuckerman suggests, will help identify key links in social networks that might diversify one’s contacts. Many social networking sites presume that weak ties — people we don’t know particularly well — can be highly valuable in areas like job searches. But Zuckerman believes that certain people who constitute a set of unique connections for us — they represent “bridge” ties — are the most valuable of all.   Identifying and emphasizing these “bridge” people for all of us, Zuckerman thinks, could improve social networking sites.

In this view, being a “digital cosmopolitan” is everyone’s responsibility — and software engineers, among others, should keep thinking about ways to encourage that practice.

“I’m hoping the book will inspire other people to start building this stuff,” Zuckerman says.