Will the desire for other perspectives trump the “friendly world syndrome”?

Some recent journalism at NPR and The New York Times has addressed some aspects of the “friendly world syndrome” created by personalized media. A theme common to both pieces is that people want to encounter different perspectives and will use available resources to do so. I’m a bit more skeptical.

Here’s Natasha Singer at The New York Times on cascades of memes, idioms, and links through online social networks (e.g., Twitter):

If we keep seeing the same links and catchphrases ricocheting around our social networks, it might mean we are being exposed only to what we want to hear, says Damon Centola, an assistant professor of economic sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“You might say to yourself: ‘I am in a group where I am not getting any views other than the ones I agree with. I’m curious to know what else is out there,’” Professor Centola says.

Consider a new hashtag: diversity.

This is how Singer ends this article in which the central example is “icantdateyou” leading Egypt-related idioms as a trending topic on Twitter. The suggestion here, by Centola and Singer, is that people will notice they are getting a biased perspective of how many people agree with them and what topics people care about — and then will take action to get other perspectives.

Why am I skeptical?

First, I doubt that we really realize the extent to which media — and personalized social media in particular — bias their perception of the frequency of beliefs and events. Even though people know that fiction TV programs (e.g., cop shows) don’t aim to represent reality, heavy TV watchers (on average) substantially overestimate the percent of adult men employed in law enforcement.1 That is, the processes that produce the “friendly world syndrome” function without conscious awareness and, perhaps, even despite it. So people can’t consciously choose to seek out diverse perspectives if they don’t know they are increasingly missing them.

Second, I doubt that people actually want diversity of perspectives all that much. Even if I realize divergent views are missing from my media experience, why would I seek them out? This might be desirable for some people (but not all), and even for those, the desire to encounter people who radically disagree has its limits.

Similar ideas pop up in a NPR All Things Considered segment by Laura Sydell. This short piece (audio, transcript) is part of NPR’s “Cultural Fragmentation” series.2 The segment begins with the worry that offline bubbles are replicated online and quotes me describing how attempts to filter for personal relevance also heighten the bias towards agreement in personalized media.

But much of the piece has actually focuses on how one person — Kyra Gaunt, a professor and musician — is using Twitter to connect and converse with new and different people. Gaunt describes her experience on Twitter as featuring debate, engagement, and “learning about black people even if you’ve never seen one before”. Sydell’s commentary identifies the public nature of Twitter as an important factor in facilitating experiencing diverse perspectives:

But, even though there is a lot of conversation going on among African Americans on Twitter, Professor Gaunt says it’s very different from the closed nature of Facebook because tweets are public.

I think this is true to some degree: much of the content produced by Facebook users is indeed public, but Facebook does not make it as easily searchable or discoverable (e.g., through trending topics). But more importantly, Facebook and Twitter differ in their affordances for conversation. Facebook ties responses to the original post, which means both that the original poster controls who can reply and that everyone who replies is part of the same conversation. Twitter supports replies through the @reply mechanism, so that anyone can reply but the conversation is fragmented, as repliers and consumers often do not see all replies. So, as I’ve described, even if you follow a few people you disagree with on Twitter, you’ll most likely see replies from the other people you follow, who — more often than not — you agree with.

Gaunt’s experience with Twitter is certainly not typical. She has over 3,300 followers and follows over 2,400, so many of her posts will generate replies from people she doesn’t know well but whose replies will appear in her main feed. And — if she looks beyond her main feed to the @Mentions page — she will see the replies from even those she does not follow herself. On the other hand, her followers will likely only see her posts and replies from others they follow.3

Nonetheless, Gaunt’s case is worth considering further, as does Sydell:

SYDELL: Gaunt says she’s made new friends through Twitter.

GAUNT: I’m meeting strangers. I met with two people I had engaged with through Twitter in the past 10 days who I’d never met in real time, in what we say in IRL, in real life. And I met them, and I felt like this is my tribe.

SYDELL: And Gaunt says they weren’t black. But the key word for some observers is tribe. Although there are people like Gaunt who are using social media to reach out, some observers are concerned that she is the exception to the rule, that most of us will be content to stay within our race, class, ethnicity, family or political party.

So Professor Gaunt is likely making connections with people she would not have otherwise. But — it is at least tempting to conclude from “this is my tribe” — they are not people with radically different beliefs and values, even if they have arrived at those beliefs and values from a membership in a different race or class.

  1. Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1980). The “Mainstreaming” of America: Violence Profile No. 11. Journal of Communication, 30(3), 10-29. []
  2. I was also interviewed for the NPR segment. []
  3. One nice feature in “new Twitter” — the recently refresh of the Twitter user interface — is that clicking on a tweet will show some of the replies to it in the right column. This may offer an easier way for followers to discover diverse replies to the people they follow. But it is also not particularly usable, as it is often difficult to even trace what a reply is a reply to. []

Political arithmetic: The Joy of Stats

The Joy of Stats with Hans Rosling is quite engaging — and worth watching. I really enjoyed the historical threads running through the piece. I think he’s right to emphasize how data collection by states — to understand and control their populations — is at the origin of statistics. With increasing data collection today, this is a powerful and necessary reminder of the range of ends to which data analysis can be put.

Like others, I found the scenes with Rosling behind a bubble plot made difficult by the distracting lights and windows in the background. And the ending — with analyzing “what it means to be human” — was a bit much for me. But a small complaint about a compelling view.

Academia vs. industry: Harvard CS vs. Google edition

Matt Welsh, a professor in the Harvard CS department, has decided to leave Harvard to continue his post-tenure leave working at Google. Welsh is obviously leaving a sweet job. In fact, it was not long ago that he was writing about how difficult it is to get tenure at Harvard.

So why is he leaving? Well, CS folks doing research in large distributed systems are in a tricky place, since the really big systems are all in industry. And instead of legions of experienced engineers to help build and study these systems, they have a bunch of lazy grad students! One might think, then, that this kind of (tenured) professor to industry move is limited to people creating and studying large deployments of computer systems.

There is a broader pull, I think. For researchers studying many central topics in the social sciences (e.g., social influence), there is a big draw to industry, since it is corporations that are collecting broad and deep data sets describing human behavior. To some extent, this is also a case of industry being appealing for people studying deployment of large deployments of computer systems — but it applies even to those who don’t care much about the “computer” part. In further parallels to the case with CS systems researchers, in industry they have talented database and machine learning experts ready to help, rather than social science grad students who are (like the faculty) too often afraid of math.

Economic imperialism and causal inference

And I, for one, welcome our new economist overlords…

Readers not in academic social science may take the title of this post as indicating I’m writing about the use of economic might to imperialist ends.1 Rather, economic imperialism is a practice of economists (and acolytes) in which they invade research territories that traditionally “belong” to other social scientific disciplines.2 See this comic for one way you can react to this.3

Economists bring their theoretical, statistical, and research-funding resources to bear on problems that might not be considered economics. For example, freakonomists like Levitt study sumo wrestlers and the effects of the legalization of abortion on crime. But, hey, if the Commerce Clause means that Congress can legislate everything, then, for the same reasons, economists can — no, must — study everything.

I am not an economist by training, but I have recently had reason to read quite a bit in econometrics. Overall, I’m impressed.4 Economists have recently taken causal inference — learning about cause and effect relationships, often from observational data — quite seriously. In the eyes of some, this has precipitated a “credibility revolution” in economics. Certainly, papers in economics and (especially) econometrics journals consider threats to the validity of causal inference at length.

On the other hand, causal inference in the rest of the social sciences is simultaneously over-inhibited and under-inhibited. As Judea Pearl observes in his book Causality, lack of clarity about statistical models (that social scientists often don’t understand) and causality has induced confusion about distinctions between statistical and causal issues (i.e., between estimation methods and identification).5

So, on the one had, many psychologists stick to experiments. Randomized experiments are, generally, the gold standard for investigating cause–effect relationships, so this can and often does go well. However, social psychologists have recently been obsessed with using “mediation analysis” to investigate the mechanisms by which causes they can manipulate produce effects of interest. Investigators often manipulate some factors experimentally and then measure one or more variables they believe fully or partially mediate the effect of those factors on their outcome. Then, under the standard Baron & Kenny approach, psychologists fit a few regression models, including regressing the outcome on both the experimentally manipulated variables and the simply measured (mediating) variables. The assumptions required for this analysis to identify any effects of interest are rarely satisfied (e.g., effects on individuals are homogenous).6 So psychologists are often over-inhibited (experiments only please!) and under-inhibited (mediation analysis).

Likewise, in more observational studies (in psychology, sociology, education, etc.), investigators are sometimes wary of making explicit causal claims. So instead of carefully stating the causal assumptions that would justify different causal conclusions, readers are left with phrases like “suggests” and “is consistent with” followed by causal claims. Authors then recommend that further research be conducted to better support these causal conclusions. With these kinds of recommendations awaiting, no wonder that economists find the territory ready for taking: they can just show up with econometrics tools and get to work on hard-won questions the rightly belong to others!

  1. Well, if economists have better funding sources, this might apply in some sense. []
  2. For arguments in favor of economic imperialism, see Lazear, E.P. (1999). Economic imperialism. NBER Working Paper No. 7300. []
  3. Or see this comic for imperialism by physicists. []
  4. At least by the contemporary literature on what I’ve been reading on — IVs, encouragement designs, endogenous interactions, matching estimators. But it is true that in some of these areas econometrics has been able to fruitfully borrow from work on potential outcomes in statistics and epidemiology. []
  5. Econometricians have made similar observations. []
  6. For a bit on this topic, see the discussion and links to papers here. []

Homophily and peer influence are messy business

Some social scientists have recently been getting themselves into trouble (and limelight) claiming that they have evidence of direct and indirect “contagion” (peer influence effects) in obesity, happiness, loneliness, etc. Statisticians and methodologists — and even science journalists — have pointed out their troubles. In observational data, peer influence effects are confounded with those of homophily and common external causes. That is, people are similar to other people in their social neighborhood because ties are more likely to form between similar people, and many external events that could cause the outcome are localized in networks (e.g., fast food restaurant opens down the street).

Econometricians1 have worked out the conditions necessary for peer influence effects to be identifiable.2 Very few studies have plausibly satisfied these requirements. But even if an investigator meets these requirements, it is worth remembering that homophily and peer influence are still tricky to think about — let along produce credible quantitative estimates of.

As Andrew Gelman notes, homophily can depend on network structure and information cascades (a kind of peer influence effect) to enable the homophilous relationships to form. Likewise, the success or failure of influence in a relationship can affect that relationship. For example, once I convert you to my way of thinking — let’s say, about climate change, we’ll be better friends. To me, it seems like some of the downstream consequences of our similarity should be attributed to peer influence. If I get fat and so you do, it could be peer influence in many ways: maybe that’s because I convinced you that owning a propane grill is more environmentally friendly (and then we both ended up grilling a lot more red meat). Sounds like peer influence to me. But it’s not that me getting fat caused you to.

Part of the problem here is looking only at peer influence effects in a single behavior or outcome at once. I look forward to the “clear thinking and adequate data” (Manski) that will allow us to better understand these processes in the future. Until then: scientists, please at least be modest in your claims and radical policy recommendations. This is messy business.

  1. They do statistics but speak a different language than big “S” statisticians — kind of like machine learning folks. []
  2. For example, see Manski, C. F. (2000). Economic analysis of social interactions. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14(3):115–136. Economists call peer influence effects endogenous interactions and contextual interactions. []