December 21, 2006
Okay, I've been mumbling about the threat of monoculture for months now, but what's really gratifying is how much attention the idea has gotten in many of the year-end roundups that are saturating the press. Even better, the people who've been thinking about this a lot longer than me are doing a great job of explaining the ideas.
The New York Times Magazine's "Year In Ideas" issue had a few nods to the importance of cultural diversity online; Homophily is a great piece from Aaron Retica, pegged to Nat's post on O'Reilly Radar from back in October.
This year, other academics have cited homophily in elucidating everything from why teenagers choose friends who smoke and drink the same amount that they do to “the strong isolation of lower-class blacks from the interracial- marriage market.” Researchers at M.I.T. even published “Homophily in Online Dating: When Do You Like Someone Like Yourself?” which showed that you like someone like yourself most of the time, online or off. So much for “opposites attract.”
In the same issue of the Times Magazine, Steven Johnson covered Digital Maoism, Jaron Lanier's long-time meme (first introduced in his Edge essay) which shows the dangers of a tyrannical majority in many situations. (Steven also contributes a cogent assessment of Web 2.0 for Time.) Jaron's argument is summarized succinctly:
But all the hype over the powers of the so-called hive mind was bound to provoke a reaction, and in May of this year, it arrived in the form of a thoughtful — though controversial — essay by the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier. “What we are witnessing today,” Lanier wrote on Edge.org, “is the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective. Numerous elite organizations have been swept off their feet by the idea. They are inspired by the rise of the Wikipedia, by the wealth of Google and by the rush of entrepreneurs to be the most Meta. Government agencies, top corporate planning departments and major universities have all gotten the bug.” Lanier dubbed this newthink “digital Maoism.” Against this collectivist mythos, Lanier tried to carve out a crucial space for the insight and creativity of the individual mind.
Jaron shows up in Time's year-end YouTube lovefest, too. "Beware the Online Collective, he exhorts:
One of the most wonderful things about the rise of the Web and other Internet-based communication schemes is how anti-mob they have been. I was in heaven 10 years ago watching millions of people build web sites for the first time as a form of expression. I'm just as excited today when I run across a creative web page, MySpace site, YouTube video or whatever. There are zillions of people out there who are developing themselves, reaching out to others, becoming more creative, better educated, and richer than they otherwise would have been.
So what's wrong with this pretty picture? All too many entrepreneurs seem to think that if you reduce the human element, the scheme will become more efficient. Instead of asking people to create videos or avatars, which require creativity and commitment, just watch their clicks, have them take surveys, have them tweak collective works, add anonymous, unconsidered remarks, etc. This trend is lousy, in my opinion, because it encourages people to lose themselves into groupthink.
All well worth the read. Now we just have to see which meme naming will win, "homophily", "digital maoism", or "monoculture". Because all that's missing so far is a Long Tail-style name for the idea for it to really take off.