(via O’Reilly’s Radar)

Homophily refers to the tendency to associate with people who are like you. This is as common in chat rooms as it is in elementary school lunch rooms. There is a natural tendency to seek out and associate with other people that are like us in some way. It makes us feel like we “belong”, like we are not alone. Sometimes this is harmless and even beneficial, as when quilters find each other and form a club. They get satisfaction and enjoyment out of their shared interest. Sometimes it is very bad, as when young men and women with radical inclinations find each other and push one another toward terrorism, strengthening one another’s resolve to kill. Generally the effects are somewhere in the middle, bringing us together with like minded individuals but limiting our exposure to new and interesting people or ideas.

In the context of social software and website development we find that homophily can help build a community of like minded individuals who are passionate about something. However, by connecting people with the same interests and tailoring information and experiences to what people like we may lose out on exposing them to exciting, interesting new people and information. Music sites may keep recommending songs from the same genre rather than expanding an audiophile’s horizons. Movie sites may keep recommending the same type of movie rather than branching out and recommending something provocative and new. Dating sites may keep giving you the same boring losers with same hobbies as yours instead of the opposite that would really attract you attention, if only you knew about them. These limitations on what we show to customers can also limit the products and services that they will value enough to pay for or use.

This is an interesting and non-trivial problem for developers who must find a balance of giving people what they ask for while pushing them into new areas. As a business principle this about satisfying their immediate needs and wants while helping them to develop new ones. Customers with more interests will be open to buying a more diverse selection of your products.

There are many ways to go about expanding customers’ horizons. You could list related items that you chose or other items bought by people who bought an item. You can let other customers make recommendations about similar products. You can select a few things at random and then let customers rate them. You can provide free samples of disparate products (e.g free weekly downloads from different musical genres). The goal should be to give a customer what they asked for and a little something unexpected and extra without being pushy or demanding.

Kevin Hall
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