The limits of homophily

Thanks to Frances Bell for drawing my attention to this article, and to a really useful word. I’ve been talking about the issues of homophily within social networking sites and practices for some time now, but without having an actual word to describe what it was I was getting at. So cheers Frances!

Homophily in this case was sourced from the article Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks (2001). McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Cook stitch up the concept in the abstract:

"Similarity breeds connection. This principle—the homophily
principle—structures network ties of every type, including marriage,
friendship, work, advice, support, information transfer, exchange,
comembership, and other types of relationship. The result is that
people’s personal networks are homogeneous with regard to many
sociodemographic, behavioral, and intrapersonal characteristics.
Homophily limits people’s social worlds in a way that has powerful
implications for the information they receive, the attitudes they form,
and the interactions they experience. Homophily in race and ethnicity
creates the strongest divides in our personal environments, with age,
religion, education, occupation, and gender following in roughly that

There’s no doubting the fact that social networking sites are built around the facilitation of  homophily – whether its of general or specific interest (liking ‘film’ or liking ‘Korean cinema’, or ‘Choi Min-shik’, for example) , geographical location, institutional affiliation etc etc. The rise of social search makes this even more explicit. In particular, people search engines which mine social networking sites – (e.g. Explode, Squidwho, Wink, & more each day) – are built around the idea that you can find friends who share your interests across locations, not be bound by your network-flavor affiliation.

The current reality is a bit more hit and miss – blame it on the relatively small volume of white-label social networks, or closed houses, or  the lack of tag savvy amongst the general population,  but it’s going to be easier for a while to find someone with very broad interests (for some reason, sex springs to mind as a popularly listed one), rather than your specific long-tail requirements for some time to come.

The question I was asking is what we miss by reinforcing homophily as the prime directive online. To give a pretty flip example, I don’t have a huge amount of friends over at, but I certainly don’t want to make friends with anyone who listens to exactly the same music as I do. What would be the point?  I want friends who listen to things I’ve never heard of, and am unlikely to stumble over by myself. I like to listen to new stuff, even if I only very very rarely fall in love with something.

4 thoughts on “The limits of homophily

  1. You have buttoned the button on the perils in homophily in social networks Josie – connecting with the similar makes us so vulnerable to “confirmation bias”
    Nassim Taleb in the must read book for 2007 “The Black Swan” elaborates on our “natural tendency to look only for corroboration; calling this corroboration error the conformation bias.”
    Homophily exaggerated through social networking can only exacerbate our propensity to misthink.
    “You can test a given rule either directly, by looking at instances where it works, or indirectly by focusing on where it does not work. … disconfirming instances are far more powerful in establishing truth. ” p58

  2. Hi Christopher!
    Naw, not to worry about that – since other people have gone with “awful word” and “It’s not even interesting!”, it’s obviously contestable 🙂

  3. I pointed my students in the direction of your post & Stephens … they had quite an interesting discussion – in particular round the choice of the word “Homophily” to describe the phenomena. It’s clear some weren’t too happy with the word -while others were able to refer back to the Greek origins of the two parts.

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