Polarizing the Internet One Site at a Time

This post was written by a student in the Stanford’s Winter 2011 Networked Rhetoric class; it was designed to focus in on a particular source or research experience related to his project on social media and digital culture .  See a more detailed overview of this assignment.


We live in a world dominated by Facebook and the Internet at large.  Every day, social widgets are sprouting on web sites drawing our social lives into an increasing number of our interactions online.  Film rating sites come equipped with our friends ratings, search engines now show us results liked by our Facebook friends, even traditional news sites show us what articles our friends have liked.  The question I aim to explore is this: what are the effects of living in a web of our friends?  Will we be drawn into an online “echo chamber” of friends, in which we hear similar opinions reinforcing our own?  Or will interacting with a more diverse mix of friends open ourselves to different thoughts and opinions?

While I have been unable to find any source exploring the consequences of the  expansion of social networks into 3rd party web sites, I have found much research done in the area of social networks and the similarity of our friend networks.  One such study was made by Sharad Goel et al. at Yahoo! Research.  They looked at how similarly aligned political attitudes were among Facebook friend groups.  Unsurprisingly, they found that friends tended to agree more with each other than at random.  However, they also looked at the perceptions of individuals on how similar their friends were.  Here, they discovered that people are actually fairly poor estimators of how similar they are to their friends, generally thinking they are more similar than they actually are.  These results showed that while we may be similar to our friends, we often don’t actually know our friends’ opinions all that well.

This source provides numerous insights on how social networks can impact our opinions online.  It provides concrete evidence that we tend to be friends with people who are similar with us, an effect that has translated to online networks.  As shown by multiple studies, exposure to a network of people who share the same opinions often results in more extreme opinions, presenting one way social networks can affect our opinions.

However, the study also presents an alternative way of thinking about the effects of the increasing prevalence of social networks.  We clearly do not know our friends as well as we think we do.  If social tools around the web enable us to learn more about our friends, could social networks actually improve our knowledge of our friends and how diverse our friend network actually is?  This question presents a new potential avenue of research to explore and may be a glimmer of hope in the uncertainty of how polarized our society is becoming.

FriendSense: Original Link

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This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Student Research, Networked Rhetoric: Section 1, Stanford Networked Rhetorics class. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Polarizing the Internet One Site at a Time

  1. Melissa Sussmann says:

    I think that group dynamics can be very interesting. However, I see a few problems with the questions you are asking. How can you measure the expansion of people’s minds and ideologies through social networks and groups? I know that I have had very different experiences on each social network I have been a part of, so I can’t even answer that question from personal experience. Going to a study for answers is a good move, but I don’t really see how that study relates to your questions in the first paragraph. It will be tough for you to make general statements about social groups. You should focus your topic more on to perhaps polarization in politics, gender issues, or a perticular social network. It feels like your topic is slightly too broad to make any conclusive statements about it.

  2. Pingback: Researching Networked Culture | The Cross-Cultural Rhetoric Blog

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