Social Network Dynamics Could Help Preserve Global Diversity

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., March 4, 2009 — With the growth of communication technologies on the Internet, the world has become more connected. People from different cultures and far away regions can easily and quickly interact. However, this trend toward globalization raises questions about the future of cultural diversity. As people interact more, cultural exchange will make them more similar. And the more similar they become, the easier it is to keep interacting. As this process of influence and reinforcement unfolds, will all of our differences eventually disappear?

MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Damon Centola, in collaboration with physicists from Mallorca, Spain, set out to answer this question using computer models of cultural evolution. By simulating social interaction among tens of thousands of individuals in a dynamic social network model, Centola and his collaborators found that individuals form into tightly clustered cultural cliques. Comparing the results of their model to recent studies of behavior in Internet communities, they found that their results matched the patterns of behavior observed online. Even those people with hundreds of connections on sites like Facebook.com or LinkedIn.com are likely to only interact online with the same clique of people on a regular basis. And the people in that virtual clique are likely to look and sound a lot alike.

“Some people think that the social cliques that we've observed for hundreds of years will vanish due to the massive connectivity of the Internet, but if you trace who interacts with whom on a regular basis on social networking Websites, those networks and communities tend to reproduce the same clusters that we see in face-to-face communities,” said Centola. “The world doesn't change that much just because it becomes virtual.”

Surprisingly, Centola and his colleagues maintain that this is good news for preserving cultural diversity. The results of their study show that the highly clique-like nature of online communities could actually help to maintain global diversity. Centola and his coauthors wrote, “Despite the growing technological trends toward increased connectivity and globalization, social diversity can be maintained even in highly connected environments.”

They explained, “For thousands of years in human history, the emergence and maintenance of group boundaries has sustained the diversity of cultural practices across different populations. In modern online communities, similar patterns of diversification emerge, and for a similar reason: The homophily principle — that people tend to interact with others similar to themselves — actively constrains the communities to which we belong and the people with whom we choose to interact, share ideas, and adopt our patterns of life.”

“[T]hrough the dynamics of network co-evolution, these patterns of preferential interaction of like with like produce cultural pockets whose identity and ideas, though flexible, are nonetheless stable from dissolution into a homogenous global culture,” wrote the authors.

So while globalization may provide more means of connecting people, these same means for interaction also show the strong tendency of people to self-organize into culturally defined groups, which can ultimately help to preserve overall diversity, said Centola.

The paper was coauthored by Centola, Juan Carlos Gonzalez-Avella, Victor M. Eguiluz, and Maxi San Miguel of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Studies and Complex Systems, Campus Universitat de les Illes Balears in Spain.

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