The corrosive effect of online filter bubbles are by now well understood. So if you want to challenge your biases for the sake of being a wiser person, you’d better stay abreast of what’s on the minds of people who don’t think like you.
But there’s an even more specific and pragmatic reason for cultivating what scholars call a “loose” or open network, as in, one in which the people you follow are not also following each other. In a 2015 study, researchers in the US and Ireland found that having a diverse Twitter following could also improve the quality of the ideas you bring to work, making you a more innovative employee. This may be true no matter what field you’re in, according to the research, which was published in the MIT Sloan Management Review.
The fact is, most people naturally develop a kind of compact network, by the nature of the way we build our social media feeds over time. When LinkedIn and Twitter algorithms make recommendations for people you should follow, the selections are based on common affiliations, says Salvatore Parise, a professor of technology at Babson College in Massachusetts and the lead author of the 2015 study. “In a sense,” he tells Quartz at Work, “it’s almost building that closed network.”
But he can imagine a day when an AI-powered bot might pop up on your screen and say, “You might want more diversity in your network. Maybe you should follow these accounts.” Perhaps someday there will even be a tool that lets different platforms present you with network models for specific roles in the workplace. For example, “you might see that an effective leader has this type of map, and I’m in a similar position, so I’m going to use the tool to start making my network look more like that one,” Parise says, noting that previous research has demonstrated that the best leaders maintain varied connections that are not tightly linked to each other.
For now, however, you have to do the work of diversifying your feed. To help you do that, we asked Parise and a few of Quartz’s tech and social media experts for advice.
First, consider all forms of diversity
This may seem self-evident, but taking the time to consider all the types of diversity that belong in your feed is an essential first step. There’s the visible and top-of-mind forms, like race, age, and gender, but the list of typically invisible forms of diversity is longer. Consider sexual orientation, class, religion, geography, political orientation, and others. “I think all of them are important,” says Parise.
In the 2015 study, the researchers ran an organizational network analysis on 10 employee groups in five companies across different industries. Only diversity seemed to be correlated to more original thinking, the researchers discovered. What didn’t matter: The amount of tweets, retweets, and responses someone produced, the number of followers they had, and the number of people they followed.
The researchers also found that employees whose networks were more open also made the most original suggestions, as measured by a managers’ ranking of anonymous ideas and other metrics. Finding diverse subject-matter expertise seems essential in this context. Says Parise, “If you’re in marketing, you view everything from a marketing lens, right? But the way we work today, or when we’re trying to create a very engaging customer experience, you have to take different perspectives.” Your next big idea (or solution to a problem) might originate with a tweet from a tech executive, a performance artist, or a NASA scientist. It could spring from an interesting mind in literally any field.
If you work in a occupation that is itself not diverse, it might be especially effective to scan for voices that are underrepresented. In a male-dominated profession, for instance, Twitter can help you bring a woman’s voice into the room, says Quincy Tickner, an associate growth editor who helps manage Quartz’s social-media accounts. “Twitter seems to be the place where we can have some control over lifting up women’s voices,” she says.
Use tools to analyze your network
There are a bunch of apps that can give you a sense of the shape of your network as it stands. Start with Twitter’s own analytics tool, suggests Quartz’s tech editor, Mike Murphy. (Go to “Your account,” look for “Analytics,” and then click on the “Audiences” tab.) It’s free, and surprisingly detailed. It gives you the top interests, locations, a breakdown of net income data, and other features of your followers. (Follow enough of your followers, and you can be confident that your network reflects this data as well.)
Since Twitter’s analytics tool classifies people into only two genders, he also turns to Proporti.onl, which includes the percentage of people in your feed who identify as non-binary. According to website copy by the app’s creator, A. Jesse Jiryu Davis, “It’s inaccurate and it undercounts nonbinary folk, but it’s better than making no effort at all.”
If you use Slack at work, there’s an add-on called Compass that shows you who you’re talking to most in that network, Parise points out. You also can investigate your own interaction with men or women on Twitter using TwArχiv Analyzer, by open-data researcher Bastian Greshake Tzovaras. Should you find you’re retweeting and commenting on men’s tweets more than women’s, there’s a chance you’re also not giving women’s tweets the same weight as men’s.
“Of course, Twitter does not necessarily reflect everyday interactions, and one person’s replies and retweets can amount to a fairly small data set,” Quartz reporter Olivia Goldhill wrote in a story about her experience with the tool. “But the cold hard data offer a clearer picture of any aggregate imbalances that could be overlooked day to day, and is the first step towards a more considered approach to Twitter.”
To take the analysis even deeper, check out the more sophisticated, definitely not free analytics programs that offer organizational network analysis. You can find recommendations from academics through online forums, like this one on ResearchGate.
Create TweetDeck collections
A number of Quartz reporters say they use the TweetDeck platform to organize their feeds according to topic or perspectives. The site allows users to create filters and lists by themes that are easily organized and can be scanned at a glance.
Parise also is a fan. If he’s teaching a class on entrepreneurship, he can filter findings by using the #entrepreneurship hashtag, rather than looking for individual accounts. He’ll find people who offer tips for starting a business, he says, which is fine. But he may also discover, for example, something the World Bank is doing with entrepreneurs in Latin America or elsewhere, where they’re seeding local businesses to encourage startups. “Now that’s a totally different perspective,” he notes, “and it gives you that global view, and it gives me different ideas that I might use when I teach entrepreneurship.”
Post a tweet asking for recommendations
Where algorithms fail, turn to people. Quartz’s Murphy did this last year:
Look for the big thinkers
To source big ideas that are mind-blowing but also credible, Tickner follows several scientists, professors, and experts.
In their 2015 study, Parise and his co-authors noted that “[s]everal employees mentioned virtual connections to the thoughts of individuals such as former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and science commentator Bill Nye as catalysts for good ideas—even though those individuals were not directly involved with the work the employees were doing.”
See the world through someone else’s feed
It’s not exactly stepping into someone else’s skin, but you can find ways to see the world through a stranger’s Twitter feed. For instance, Quartz senior editor Adam Pasick follows an account that retweets everything from the Twitter handles that US president Donald Trump follows. A team at MIT has created a tool that allows you to do this with any Twitter follower.
Pay special attention to media you follow
Another growth editor at Quartz, Molly Stier, advises examining your news diet. She makes a conscious effort to diversify her sources, especially in Chicago, where she lives.
“I like to stay on top of emerging and established voices in Chicago, from literary circles to organizers, to politicians,” she says. “I do that by seeing who a wide-array of Chicago media is covering and following them on Twitter. Then I take inventory of who they follow, and continue evaluating who to follow from there,” she explains. Rather than paying attention only to the Chicago Tribune, she says, “[i]f I follow folks being featured in The TRiiBE, WBEZ, Block Club Chicago, Chicago Reporter, In These Times, and the Chicago Tribune, then I’m going to do a better job at diversifying my feed.”
She adds: “It’s not foolproof, but it sets up a good foundation to work from.”
Take the information somewhere useful
Parise and his team on the 2015 study interviewed more than 200 of the employees whose networks they had mapped and who had been identified as generators of novel ideas. They noticed a pattern: People whose ideas were ranked highly also seemed to have a high “individual absorptive capacity,” or, more plainly, a better ability to hear valuable signals in the noise. “I can throw 20 ideas at you, but if you don’t have the ability to understand, assimilate, and then do something with that, then where’s the value?” Parise says.
The good news is, the cost of information is going to zero, he observes. But if you’re inspired by an online trend or clever approach you find elsewhere, you still need the ability to figure out what’s valid and applicable within your organization, and where to take the information so that it’s acted upon.
Finally, make the work of maintaining a diverse network a habit with no expiration date. One interviewee in Parise’s study described the push for diversity as an “ongoing battle,” explaining that “after a year or so of following the same people, you find that your opinions shift and morph a little, and suddenly you are with a homogenous group of people again.”