I divided my time this month between West Africa and the Bay Area, which triggered a lot of cultural whiplash, which got me thinking about filter bubbles. I fear today’s technology can reinforce our instinct to confuse what’s familiar with what’s normal … which leads to skewed perceptions, bad decisions, and needless conflict. It’s OK to live in a bubble, but it is not OK to not know that you live in a bubble.
At the same time, though, I’m an engineer, which means the entire preceding paragraph already feels far too abstract and handwavey. What’s a bubble? How can one distinguish between what’s familiar and what’s normal? How can you possibly measure and quantify any of this?
…Conveniently, I have an answer to that question, inspired by my friend Leigh Honeywell, and I hereby name the Honeywell Bubble Count after her. It’s a very simple algorithm indeed:
- Go to the social network on which you’re most active. (For me: Twitter.)
- Of the people you actively follow, what percentage are a different gender than your own? (For me: 98/251, 39%. Not too bad.)
- Of the people you actively follow, what percentage are — to use the wonderful Canadian phrase — members of a visible minority, or, a different visible minority than your own? (For me: 35/251, 14%. Hmmm.)
- Of the people you actively follow, what percentage are residents of a nation other than the one in which you live? (For me: 80/251, 32%. Significantly fewer than I expected, but not awful, I suppose.)
Now just add those percentages. Voila! My Honeywell Bubble Count is 39+14+32 = 85.
Does your total exceed 80, he said, choosing that number for true and valid reasons and totally not at all just picking it out of the arbitrary ether so that his own score looks pretty good? Well then, well done! You probably don’t live in a constrictive bubble which massively distorts your worldview and all of your instincts and beliefs on a daily basis.
Is it lower than 80? Is it much lower than 80? Are any of those numbers lower than — gulp — 20? Then you may have a bubble problem.
In theory, the Internet should bring us all closer together and slowly eliminate our differences. Earlier today I friended a Senegalese taxi driver (on Facebook, unfortunately for my bubble count), a kind of ongoing connection that would have been inconceivable only ten years ago. And yet, it’s all too easy to cherry-pick those occasional vivid examples, while turning a blind eye to the fact that modern technology lets us unconsciously withdraw from most of the world and spend almost all of our time in the same kinds of social circles in which we’ve spent our entire lives; not gonna lie, I look at that 14% up above and I wince.
(See also Anil Dash’s “The Year I Didn’t Retweet Men.”)
But measuring a problem is often the first step in solving it. Think of the Honeywell Bubble Count as a Fitbit for filter bubbles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pretending that this is serious analysis and/or consideration of how to measure cross-circle social interactions; in fact, I’m not pretending it’s anything other than a whimsical and easy-to-calculate metric with a catchy name. But I suspect any glimmer of self-awareness is better than none. I reckon I’ll try to get my HBC up to at least 100 this year. And if you calculate yours and are shocked by its paucity, maybe consider doing the same.