Thursday, October 11, 2007

Homophily and Association

Responding to Artichoke:
I’ve been trying to find posts of critical analysis on the ULearn07 conference many of our teachers attended in Auckland during the school holidays. I wanted to read any critique of the new learning on offer. So it was disconcerting to read through the 427 Ulearn07 Hitchhkr links and find so little analysis and so much flocking sentiment. If I was reliant upon Hitchhikr alone for feedback on the conference I’d be tempted to conclude that ULearn07 attracted educators of such similar minds that they shared the same emotional response to all the experiences on offer - or perhaps I must conclude that blogging about an educational conference induces a Josie Fraser described homophily in educators.

What we are seeing in these communities is classic 'group' behaviour. Groups are characterized by emotional attachment to an idea or cause. Hence the 'me too' posts, as posts consisting of statements of loyalty to the group will be most valued by the group.

Group behaviour common accompanies homophily because groups are created - and defined by - similarity and identity. What's important in a group is that everybody be in some way relevantly the same. Thus it becomes important to obtain statements of conformity (in the case of hitchhkr tags) and to define boundaries.

(It is interesting to compare hitchhkr, which, because it used Technorati, demanded explicit affiliation to a group, with the conference feeds created by Edu_RSS, which, because it harvested RSS feeds directly, required no affiliation - in Edu_RSS you tend to get more criticisms and "outsiders'" perspectives).

What should be kept in mind is that homophily is only one of several means of creating associations between entities (and hence, clusters of those entities, aka 'communities').

Homophily is, essentially, simply Hebbian associationism. When neurons fire at the same time - that is, when they are stimulated by all and only the same sort of thing - they tend to become connected.

But there are other principles of association. I would like to list four (usually I list three, but I think that the fourth should become part of this picture). I'll give brief examples of each:

1. Hebbian associationism. People are connected by common interests. Affinity groups, religions, communities of practice - these are all examples of similarity-based association.

2. Accidental, or proximity-based, associationism. People who are proximate (have fewer hops between them) are connected. You may have nothing to do with your neighbour, but you're connected. The mind associates cause and effect because one follows the other (Hume). Retinal cells that are beside each other become associated through common connections.

3. Back-propagation. Existing structures of association are modified through feedback. Complain about the 'me too' posts, for example, and they decline in number. Adversity creates connections.

4. Boltzmann Associationism. Connections are created which reflect the most naturally stable configuration. The way ripples in a pond smooth out. This is how opposites can attract - they are most comfortable with each other. Or, people making alliances of convenience.

Two of these forms are qualitative. They are based on direct experience. They are not critical or evaluative. They tend to lead to groups.

The other two - Back Propagation and Boltzmann associationism - are reflective. They are created through a process of interaction, and not simply through experience. They are critical or evaluative. They tend to lead to networks.

It has been said, by way of criticism of my other work on this subject, that we need the elements of both groups and networks. That may be true. But the problem is, they cancel each other out.

Groups are based on conformity, networks are created out of diversity. Groups are based on compliance, networks are based on autonomy. Groups are closed, networks are open. Groups communicate inwardly, networks communicate outwardly.

Most social networks to date have focused on groups (indeed, they are explicitly about creating groups) and hence, on Hebbian and Accidental association. It's easy to find similarities. But the similarities are so broad (as Fraser says, sex springs to mind) the groups thus defined are formless, and when you define the similarities more narrowly, the members of the group have nothing to say to each other (other than to chant the slogans back and forth at each other).

Finding reflective connections is more difficult. We do not have automated back-propagation and Boltzmann mechanisms on the internet - it's possible that we won't be able to. Right now, the only mechanisms we have are messy things like conferences and chat rooms and discussion lists and blogs. And the connections have to be made, not by machine, but by autonomous reflective individuals.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for this Stephen. It's a really neat overview of association. I'm particularly interested in homophily because it's the structuring principle behind social search, and critical I think to explore as we increasingly start to switch to search within network connections.

    I'm going to talk about all this at December's Bazaar conference in Utrecht - since Graham is in charge it probably will get recorded for once! My session is going to be called Social search & the perils of homophily (or, if internet dating really worked how would anyone make any money)

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  2. But what does it ultimately achieve? Answer...nothing! And you know what? It's not even interesting! Be nice if you could all find proper jobs and actually contribute something useful to society rather than this useless waffle.

    I would leave my name but would you care? No. It's either going to get deleted or you'll all just flap around in distress and outrage. Let's just call me an irate taxpayer who is fed up of their money being distributed to fund worthless "educational" reseach, let's face it, I doubt you would be looking into today's buzzword "Homophily" if you didn't think it would lead to an educational grant. It's load of cobblers and you know it.

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  3. anonymous said...
    But what does it ultimately achieve? Answer...nothing! And you know what? It's not even interesting! Be nice if you could all find proper jobs and actually contribute something useful to society rather than this useless waffle. 

I would leave my name but would you care? No. It's either going to get deleted or you'll all just flap around in distress and outrage. Let's just call me an irate taxpayer who is fed up of their money being distributed to fund worthless "educational" research, let's face it, I doubt you would be looking into today's buzzword "Homophily" if you didn't think it would lead to an educational grant. It's load of cobblers and you know it.


    Well, you're not that anonymous - it's a pretty small world we run in, but thanks for the opportunity to expand on the point or pointlessness of thinking, blogging and working around this area.

    Firstly, I'm delighted that a word that's been picked up on by three bloggers can be considered a buzzword. The last row about buzzwords I entered into was over the usefulness of 'web 2.0', and I don't really think that this has that kind of currency - so thanks for the vote of confidence.

    For me, like most words within any specialist vocabulary, they are only useful in so far as they pay their way. In this instance I've been thinking about this area for a while now, at least since the boyd's the biases of links in 2005 (http://many.corante.com/archives/2005/08/08/the_biases_of_links.php) - the long standing issue of how spaces which are perceived as 'not-political' are actually just those which transparently reproduce popular power dynamics and inequalities. The reason I'm interested in this isn't because I'm looking for research funding in this area but because I give a damn about the world we live in and would like to do something to challenge those inequalities. So 'Homophily' works for me as a good short hand descriptor of an otherwise long and rambling definition. Actually I’m with you on the dangers of ‘theoretical fluency’ – like web 2.0, that value of this or any other term for me lies in its contestability.

    In terms of finding a proper job - I'd value your suggestions. I actually really struggled with the long running debate over the political value of theory myself, which is one of the reasons I don't work within academia but focus on bringing about social change within more of a policy context. However, I don’t think this outburst is necessarily aimed at me (I’m not going to take it personally anyway) or at academia in general– I think your gripe is with the value of educational technology as a discipline. There’s certainly a collective response to be made there – as there is within any other discipline. Public value is obviously an important topic for the field to continue to engage in.

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  4. One of these frustrating moments, as I'm about to get on a plane home. I like your rundown on association, Stephen. I think there is a degree of that, although the conference F2F-wise did have plenty of people analysing - it would be a mistake to take online as being 'The Conference'. It's folly to rely just on blog coverage, too, since the bloggers are almost certainly a particular 'type' of participant with a degree of flock mentality. And why not? It's the same as any social group.

    One of the reasons there is so little analysis at the moment (and I agree with you there) is that

    a) it was busy, with over 200 seminars in two days, and most people I know can't absorb, analyse and enjoy a conference at the same time.
    b) NZ schools went back on Monday after a long holiday, meaning that many attendees, who came in their vacation, had the thump of paperwork and greeting new students after the conference.

    I'll do my best to analyse what I saw and heard, although I've got my own thump back to non-stopness next week.

    Rest assured, if there's one nation that has no trouble reflecting critically on what they've heard and seen, it's New Zealand.

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  5. The key point, of course, is not to argue that an event or a debate should be dismissed simply because an instance of 'homophily' (awful word) occurs around it, but to argue about the fundamental assumptions and reasoning embedded in the event or debate itself. There's an innate lack of respect in the former and a deserved respect accorded by the latter.

    In any case, it's a somewhat pointless remark to make since the debate generated by, for instance, ULearn07 goes far beyond that which we can read in the blogosphere. There will be many attendees and contributors to the event that will conduct strands of the debate within their own heads, in their institutions, and through other media, or none.

    So the fact that bees gather around the honey-pot tells us nothing about the broader benefits to be wrought from honey

    Being a gadfly can become a thing in itself sometimes.

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  6. Hi Stephen,

    A great post summing up nicely what my experiences of life have been building on unsustainable surfaces amidst connections, disconnections and a whole heap of waffle, bacn and misfiring neurons in between.

    You know what ? When you made a point of stating the unstated at FLNW1 regarding individuals, groups and networks I was too smug, insecure and concious to note the absolute deep to the core validity of your position.

    I've listened to a few recordings ( audio ) which will go unpublished, of our ranting and raving as a "group" over there in NZ but most of all I wish to thank you for bringing me forward in the way that I relate with other people in this networked machine.

    I'm begining to get you.

    It's taken time but I can assure you that my sacrifice of a great deal of ego is to ensure that our lines of association dont get cluttered with the noise in between the signals.

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  7. Thanks for the comment Alex. No response for now, but I appreciate the thoughts.

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  8. Hi,
    I am a University of Canberra student and I am writing an essay on homophily on my blog...and I wanted to ask if you would mind if I linked to your post on homophily within my post. I haven't written much yet but I would like to include a link to your page if you don't mind. Thank You. Zoe.

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  9. Please feel free to link to this post (you do not need to ask permission to link, just link).

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