Ask yourself: Who do I talk with about important matters?
Got a list? How many people are on that list? What are those people like? How old are they? Where did they grow up? What do they like to do? What gender? What race/ethnicity?
These seem like simple questions but research using these questions explains a concept called homophily best described by the aphorism: “Birds of a feather flock together”. It turns out that when you ask who someone talks with about important matters, they tell you about people who have very similar characteristics to them. It is quite likely that you talk about things that matter to you with people who are your same gender, race/ethnicity, around your age and who have a similar socioeconomic background to you.
So men who like beer drinking and knitting are more likely to hang out with other men who want to debate IPAs and sock knitting on circulars vs. Double pointed needles. Women who like wine and football are much more likely to hang out with other Green Bay Packers fans who are in love with that new pinot grigio from the winery in Napa. You’re probably saying to yourself – well of course this is the way things work! What else is a wine-loving Green Bay Packers fan supposed to do during game day? I mean, of course men who knit want to be around others who are like them, that’s just intuitive. Who cares?
In a way, I’d agree because at it’s essence, homophily is value neutral. It’s neither good nor bad to be in a homophilous network (group of people who are like each other). In fact, we can think of a lot of reasons why it would be good for people who are like one another might want to hang out together. It allows them to form stronger connections, they build up more trust and can create a shorthand for important matters. There is a great deal to be said for the kind of social cohesion that homophilous networks can create.
However, what I would suggest is that if new ideas and innovation are needed for the many many complex social, environmental and economic problems we are trying to solve, we need to get out of talking to just our homophilous networks.
We have to start talking to people who are not like us.
Why? Because one of the down sides of homophilous networks is that they can be echo chambers that further very particular ideals and norms of those groups. The denser and more interconnected the network, the less they are able to tolerate and understand new ideas, the more we find ourselves stuck in hearing the same things over and over again.
If you want creativity and innovation, if you want to be able to expand your thinking, you need a network that includes more than just the things you have heard before. You’ve got to find ways to talk to people who don’t echo your thinking patterns, who are willing to question the star status of the Green Bay Packer’s quarterback or who will more deeply investigate why wool is supposedly the superior knitting yarn for socks.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to become the bridging tie between two networks, but I’ll get to that in another post.