27 May 2014

Homophily, Astrophysics, and #YesAllWomen

I've read the #YesAllWomen discussion on Twitter with great interest, hoping to learn a few things.  I have.

I don't know that I have much to add about misogyny, violence, "pick-up artists," and all that. People who read this blog know my politics; I think you can find a good collection of the smartest thoughts here. But I do have something to add on a related problem - the consequences of homophily and how social media is making it worse.

I saw this today:

I can obviously see why Dr. Hills describes this as "male entitlement over women." But from my perspective as a PR guy, this also has something to do with "filtering your feed." While I think the man who made this initial tweet may have deleted it, I did notice his explanation:

Set aside for the moment that this man seems to be missing @sciliz's point.  He was really just doing what millions of people do online every day - filtering his information feed to more closely reflect his interests and his worldview.  He likes astrophysics and golf.  Looking at his Twitter feed, he also likes conservative politics.  Today's technology basically allows him to screen everything else out.

Unless, of course, a really smart astrophysicist also happens to have a different opinion about feminism and occasionally shares it, like she did in the #YesAllWomen discussion.  So he asked her to filter her feminism out for him.

The online argument that appears to happen next leads me to believe he screened out the astrophysicist from his feed as well.

And that's the real problem.  We have spent so much time and energy filtering out "distractions" or uncomfortable viewpoints that the "communities" we form have no dissenting opinions or alternative perspectives about anything.

It reminded me of the piece Dr. Alice Marwick wrote for Wired - ironically, reflecting on another act of misogyny: "When people of likeminded beliefs congregate together, they collectively move toward a more extreme position." In the case Dr. Marwick examined, Adria Richards got death threats after she called someone out for telling penis jokes at a professional conference. #YesAllWomen addressed an even more extreme case of misogyny, arguably fueled by the feedback loop of a homogenized online community.

We see this so often now. In politics, in culture, in religion, in business, and now apparently in science.  We assign an "otherness" to people who likely share more in common with us than we realize.  The digital marketing and PR plans I develop account for this phenomenon - we leverage the intensity of feeling a community has for a topic or product, but understand the consequences if we take an even slightly different tack than the consensus point of view.

Technology has the promise and the capacity to bring countless diverse perspectives to our attention and help us make more informed and constructive choices.  It can also drive us apart.

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