As we've often noted in Convene, the Internet can help us find our tribes — those individuals and groups who share our challenges and our passions, enriching our lives even from multiple time zones away.
But as technology enables us to sort ourselves into more specialized communities, we may be paying the price of a shrinking worldview, according to Ethan Zuckerman, author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection. “A central paradox of this connected age is that while it's easier than ever to share information and perspectives from different parts of the world, we may now often encounter a narrower picture of the world than in less connected days,” writes Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media. “Our challenge is not access to information; it is the challenge of paying attention. That challenge is made all the more difficult by our deeply ingrained tendency to pay disproportionate attention to phenomena that unfold nearby and directly affect ourselves, our friends, and our families.”
And while it's easy to assume that the most important content will appear to us in the language we speak, “That's no longer a safe assumption,” Zuckerman writes, particularly if you're expecting it to be in English. In 1996, 80 percent of Internet users were native English speakers, but by 2010, it had dropped to 27.3 percent. Add to that the rise of online recommendations — calibrated to your expressed interests — and the pool of information you are likely to encounter grows smaller still.
However, Zuckerman notes, exposure to diverse ideas fuels creativity and our ability to solve problems: “You can't discover penicillin unless some random mold spores fall into your Petri dish.” It's so important, he says, that computer scientists are designing ways to increase the number of serendipitous results yielded by search engines and the algorithms that make recommendations.
For now, there are things you can do to make sure that your online consumption includes ideas that expand your thinking rather than merely reinforcing your opinions:
Monitor your consumption.
Track the media you consume. “Maintaining a simple diary for a week is likely to be revelatory.”
Escape your orbit slowly.
If you find that you spend a lot of time consuming the same types of media, you maybe tempted to change your diet all at once. Instead, pursue an interest that you already have and look for international connections within that space.
Seek serendipity through curators.
Give some of your attention to curators, human and mechanical, who can introduce you to unexpected influences. Some to try: Brain Pickings, StumbleUpon, and Longreads. “Seeking serendipity means embracing risk,” Zuckerman writes, “being willing to let a curator lead you astray in exchange for moments of discovery.”