The social network exploited by Travers and Milgram isn’t a
straightforward, evenly patterned web. For one thing, network topology is only
known locally—individuals starting with the letter did not know the target
individual—and the network is decentralized—it didn’t use a formal hub such as
the post office. If navigating such a network is to succeed—and tasks such as
searching peer-to-peer file sharing systems or the navigating the Web by
jumping from link to link do just that—there must be parts of the underlying
structure that successfully guide the search, argue Jensen and Şimşek.
Among the many intriguing ideas offered by Ronald Burt in the chapter draft
"Social Capital of Structural Holes," (PDF) from Brokerage and Closure,
homophily bias–or the echo chamber effect–returned me to some questions I was
thinking about at CCCC in San Francisco last week. We’re reading Burt’s
chapter for CCR711 this week, taking it up alongside a chapter on postmodern
mapping as research methodology from Porter and Sullivan’s Opening Spaces.
Earlier this semester, we read about homophily parameters in Duncan Watts’
Six Degrees; commonly framed as
echo chambers, the concept circulates in correspondence to
like-mindedness, absolution of dissent, or the kind of diminished, unproductive
parroting bound to stagnate–an abundance of closed-group gestures.
Homophily bias, then, is the orientation of a particular network structure
toward such a closed-ness.
And so I find the connection to CCCC in the structuring of Special Interest
Groups or SIGs–the interest-defined clusters that form around a particular
issue, cause, political imperative or specialization. SIGs meet each year,
and, of course, they make possible a forum for collegiality, perhaps even
solidarity, organizational focus and expert niche. Variously, they serve
social, political and professional needs; as defined structures (form-alized
with the petition to be listed in the program), they give us one way to imagine
the field–embodied in the annual flagship conference–as a clustered topology.
Fair to say?
If we apply Burt’s analysis to these clusters, however, we might
begin–productively–to find vocabulary for understanding the rules, roles and
power dynamics enforced in a particular SIG. The groups have membership
rosters, but what would happen if we started to differentiate the members as
connectors (people who have multiple ties across special interest groups) and
brokers (people who, because of their multiple ties, are able to pitch the
group’s interest to other, perhaps larger, bodies in the organization)?
Should the SIG accumulate too high a homophily bias, it would stand to
disconnect from the more active channels in the organization. Through
particularly well-connected agents–active connector-brokers capable of bridging
structural holes in the organization’s topology–might the SIG sustain itself
beyond a kind of isolation and connect meaningfully with the organization
at-large, provided, of course, that such broader persuasions are mutually valued
to the SIG’s members. For what it’s worth, I’m not thinking about any
particular SIG; instead I’m trying to reconcile Burt’s terms with network
formations related to CCCC. Furthermore, I’m interested in exploring what
it might mean to convene a heterophily-biased interest group–maybe something
that would have different interest groups co-mingle for fruitful partnerships