Homophily, anti-recommendation, and Driveway Moments

The folks at National Public Radio love to create driveway moments:

You’re driving along, listening to a story on NPR. Suddenly, you find yourself at your destination, so riveted to a piece that you sit in your idling car to hear it all the way through. That’s a Driveway Moment.

The podcasting counterpart, for me, is the Ashuelot Moment. I’m jogging along the Ashuelot River, and I’m so riveted to a piece that I take a longer route so my run won’t end before the story does.

The Long Now podcasts are my most reliable source of Moments but they’re only on a monthly cycle. TED talks are another good source, though I’ve lost track of how to subscribe to the comprehensive audio-only feed. The Conversations Network, to which I contribute a weekly show, produces occasional Moments, but a lot of the material there is so closely aligned with my own particular interests and inclinations that it doesn’t often surprise or challenge me.

Another good source is Christopher Lydon’s Open Source, which launched in 2005, suffered a setback in 2006, and then recovered in 2007. It took me a while to reconnect after the hiatus, but now I’m finding it to be more stimulating than ever.

Here’s my most recent Moment, from this Open Source show with Ethan Zuckerman and Solana Larsen. Ethan is speaking:

My hope was that with the Internet, suddenly we’re all connected, we hold hands and sing Kumbaya. And it just hasn’t worked out that way.

You loook at a site like Digg, or Reddit, these are sites that promised the future of journalism. We’d all get together and decide what’s important. But, who’s we? Or as per the Lone Ranger, who’s we, white man? Or more to the point, who’s me, white geek?

If you’re getting your news from these sites, you’re getting a very particular, tech-heavy view of politics, a fairly focused view of the world. And you start falling victim to homophily, which is what happens when all of your news and opinions are coming from people who’ve got the same background and the same values as you.

Homophily is the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together. It’s the tendency to walk into a room, find the person most similar to you, and form a bond. It’s a natural human tendency, but it’s probably worth fighting against. Homophily makes you stupid.

Of course I share tribal affiliations with Ethan Zuckerman, so I’d have been likely to find that particular show one way or another. But Global Voices Online, the project that Ethan and Solana discuss on that show, is all about resisting homophily, and enabling us to tune into global perspectives offered by people in circumstances very different from our own.

Just because we can, though, doesn’t mean we will. Homophily is a natural tendency. It’s easy and comfortable to immerse ourselves in the familiar. It’s hard and uncomfortable to seek out the unfamiliar. How do we overcome that?

Recommendation systems don’t help me much. They only suggest things similar to other things I’ve shown interest in. Increasingly that just frustrates me. The most delightful recommendations are those that connect me with things that interest me in unpredictable ways. That happens serendipitously, and I haven’t yet found a reliable way to manufacture the serendipity.

Lately I’ve started to wonder about the notion of anti-recommendation systems. One example of an anti-recommendation system is LibraryThing’s UnSuggester, which find books least likely to coincide with yours. It’s a whimsical feature that honestly hasn’t been useful to me yet, but I think the idea merits exploration and development.

Although it isn’t automated or automatable, I’d argue that the Passion Thursday series on Open Source is a kind of anti-recommender. The series includes shows about birdwatching, the pursuit of truth, poker, the potato, cursive handwriting, and the theremin, an early electronic instrument recently notable in the repertoire of the indie band DeVotchKa. The only common thread is someone’s passionate interest in something.

We’re not inclined to resist homophily and seek out otherness. But passionate storytellers can take us to places we wouldn’t otherwise go, and create Moments there.

Passion is a good way to lubricate the engine of serendipity.

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11 thoughts on “Homophily, anti-recommendation, and Driveway Moments

  1. “http://feeds.feedburner.com/tedtalks_audio”

    Thanks Thad. So, it looks like you’re having an interesting experience in Tanzania!

    “I’ve always found “This American Life” to be a good source of “driveway moments”.”

    Yes, absolutely, should’ve mentioned that too.


    Interesting. That one points to an iTunes URL. It’s evidently not advertised on the TED site itself, but easy to find if you search in iTunes. Which for some reason I rarely think to do, because I always expect that the publisher of a feed will be its most obvious source.

  2. Jon

    Agree about recommendations (tendency to lead to more of the same) vs serendipity (unexpected delights).

    Maybe there’s a great role for (human) curators. I guess ala TED. But the idea that there’s a level of quality (in terms of passion, presenting etc) you can expect from what they select for you. You don’t have to worry about selecting yourself, just know that chances are you’ll enjoy it.

    And thanks for the podcast links – look great.

  3. Jon –

    There are a bunch of alternatives to homophily that you can seek out if you know you want them.

    Just to name some –

    “neophily”, the love of the new; follow this by reading wire services, looking at new books at the library, otherwise sorting your preferences to “most recent first”

    “retrophily”, the love of the old; transpose your current interests into another time frame and see how things were done before.

    then you start to figure out other ways in which you can sort your world to make unexpected things regularly go to the top, while still being predictable and methodical about it. One lens is geography, so you ask yourself “how do they do this in Keene, NH” (you know that) or “how do they do this in Ann Arbor, MI” or your favorite far-away close-by place. There’s some element of homophily there, since you’re more likely to have an “other place” that’s more like where you are, but it’s a start.

    this reminds me of this essay by Lindsay Marshall:


    “We are not, I believe, looking for tools to record our thoughts or to provide them with structure. What we seek is something that leads us to the unforeseen collisions, the copulations that lead to new thoughts, new connections and yet more new meetings.”

  4. I try to strike a balance between keeping personal idea streams fresh and full of “moments,” but I don’t think it’s always a bad idea to embrace homophily.

    The hard sciences are definitely homophilic in that most scientists will coalesce around the best, current research. You can’t be considered a serious biologist, for instance, if you advocate Intelligent Design.

    The problem is that politics and culture and history don’t have a mathematics of proof the way science does. So you still need lots of diverse ideas to pick through and play with to help refine your sense of judgment. I agree with your take on recommendations; I never use them either.

    Some good sources here, thanks for posting them. I’m looking forward to spending some happy hours indulging myself.

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