How much variety is in your world?

How Much Variety Is In Your World?
Or, Never Mind Your IQ; what’s your DQ?

I have around 1260 people on my Facebook list. So I see lot of “memes” every day. Memes are ideas, expressed in pictures and videos and quotations and so on, which people share with each other, and the more they are shared the more their movements seem to take on a life of their own. One day I thought it would be fun to save them to a database, and tag them according to the kind of messages they express. What would I discover? Were there some kinds of memes that are more popular than others? What are these things really telling me about the thoughts and feelings of the people around me? And what are they telling me about myself?

Why I did it (at first).

The original idea was to take a kind of “snapshot” of the content of my (online) intellectual environment over four days, to see what was in it. What does this term ‘intellectual environment’ mean? First, I assure you this term does not refer to something fuzzy or vague. It is a definite reality. Think of it this way. In each of the various social worlds in which you move and interact with other people, ideas are mentioned, talked about, presented, argued over, approved, disapproved, and generally exchanged between people in many different ways. It often happens that in the process of getting bandied about like this, some ideas become more influential and more prevalent than others. You find this in the way certain words, names, phrases, jokes, questions, and beliefs are used more often than others. And you find it in the way people describe, define, criticize, praise, or judge things more often than other ways. The ideas that are expressed and traded around like that, and especially the more prevalent ones, form the intellectual environment that you live in. Thus your intellectual environment is the analogue to your your house, your neighbourhood, your local ecosystem, and the rest of your physical environment.

How I did it.

My basic rules were simple. I would take only the pictures which appeared while I happened to be online. That way, I wouldn’t have to be online all day. And I also promised myself not to deliberately change my web surfing habits during those days, so that I wouldn’t get an artificial result. I also didn’t track the links to blog posts, news articles, videos, or other online media. Just to be simple, I only tracked the photos and images. And I only tracked the ones which someone on my list shared after having seen it elsewhere. That way, each of these pictures had passed a kind of natural selection test. Someone had created the image and passed it on to someone who thought it worthy of being passed on to a third person.

Then what happened?

After the first few hours, I had about 50 memes for my collection. And I already noticed a few general trends. So I started tagging the samples into what appeared to be the four most obvious categories: Inspirational, Humorous, Political, and Everything Else. The Humour category was already by far the largest, with more samples than the other categories combined. At the end of the first day, there was enough variety in the collection that I could create sub-categories. The largest of which was “Humour involving cats or kittens”. No surprise there, I suppose.

But at the end of the second day, with about 200 samples in my collection, I started to notice something else, which was much more interesting. A small, but significant, number of these samples had to with social, political, or religious causes other than those which I personally support. Some promoted causes that were reasonably similar to my values, but I have never done all that much to support them. For instance, I’ve nothing against vegetarianism, but I’m not vegetarian myself. So I labeled those ones the “near” values, because they are not my values, but they are reasonably close, and I felt no sense of being in conflict with them.

Then I noticed that some of my samples were for causes almost directly opposed to the ones I normally support. For example, I am not a Conservative voter. But the point here is not to start a debate about particular political positions. The point is that a lot of people on my FB list were showing support for values other than my own, through the memes that they shared. So instead of “un-friending” people with different political views than me, I saved and tracked their political statements just as I did everybody else’s. And I labeled those statements the “far” values, because they expressed values fairly distant from my own.

So now I could look at all these images and put them in three broad groups: Common values, Near values, and Far values. And in doing so, I had discovered a way to statistically measure the real variety of my intellectual environment, and the extent to which I am actually exposed to seriously different world views. Let’s name this measurement your Intellectual Environment Diversity Quotient. Or, to be short about it, your DQ.

The results:

At the end of four days, I had 458 pictures, and I had tagged them into six broad categories: Inspirational, Humour, Religion, Causes, Political, and Foreign Language. Here’s how it all turned out. (Note here that if some of these numbers don’t seem to add up, that is because some samples were tagged more than once, as they fit into two or (rarely) three categories.)

Total size of the dataset: 458 (100.0%)
Inspirational images: 110 (24.0%)
Humour: 225 (49.1%)
Religion: 36 (7.8%)
Causes: 148 (32.3%)
Political: 47 (10.2%)
Foreign language: 11 (2.4%)

And by the way, only 5 of them asked the recipient to “like” or “share” the image.

Now, for the sake of calculating how much real difference there is in my intellectual environment, we have to look at just the images expressing social, political, religious, or philosophical values of some kind. This doesn’t necessarily exclude the inspirational or comic pictures that had some kind of political or moral message, because as mentioned, a lot of the pictures got more than one tag. As it turned out, around half of them were making statements about values. (That, by the way, was also very interesting.)

Here’s the breakdown of exactly what my friends were posting pictures about. And as you can see, there’s a lot of variety. But what is interesting is not how different they are from each other. What’s interesting is how many of them are different from my own point of view. You can figure this for yourself by comparing the memes in your own timeline to what you say about yourself in your own FB profile, or by just deciding with each image, one at a time, how far you agree or disagree with each one. But in either case you have to be really honest with yourself. In this way, calculating your DQ is not just about taking a snapshot of your intellectual environment. It’s also about knowing yourself, and making a few small but serious decisions about what you really stand for.

Total Religion, Causes, and Political: 231 (100.0%)

Total religious: 36 (15.5%)

Buddhism: 4 (1.7%)
Christianity: 6 (2.5%)
Pagan: 8 (3.4%)
Northern / Asatru: 6 (2.5%)
Aboriginal / First Nations: 3 (1.2%)
Taoism: 1 (0.4%)
Hindu: 1 (0.4%)
Any: 6 (2.5%)
Athiesm: 1 (0.4%)

Total causes: 148 (64.0%)

against cruelty to animals: 3 (1.2%)
against religious proselytization: 3 (1.2%)
Support education, science, critical thinking: 19 (8.2%)
Pro-vegetarian: 1 (0.4%)
Organic and/or backyard gardening: 3 (1.2%)
feminism / anti-violence against women: 3 (1.2%)
feminism / sexual power relations: 7 (3.0%)
feminism / body image: 5 (2.1%)
anti-war: 4 (1.7%)
Israel-Iran antiwar solidarity: 3 (1.2%)
Support for soldiers / war veterans: 8 (3.4%)
Support for retired military dogs: 2 (0.8%)
support gun ownership: 3 (1.2%)
race relations, anti racism: 1 (0.4%)
support gay marriage / LGBT pride: 10 (4.3%)
support environmentalism: 5 (2.1%)
support universal health care in America: 1 (0.4%)
support the student protest in Quebec: 3 (1.2%)
Against facism and neo-nazism: 1 (0.4%)

Total party political: 47 (20.3%)

Right wing: 8 (3.4%)
Left wing: 36 (15.5%)
Centre: 3 (1.2%)

Now for the sake of figuring your DQ, we need to look at the percentage of value-expressing memes which are near to my values, and the percentage of those which are distant. That’s the measure of how much of the intellectual environment you live in could really challenge you, if you let it.

Total: 231 / 100.0%
Common values = 150 / 64.9%
Near values = 64 / 27.7%
Far values = 17 / 7.3%

So, my DQ, rounded off, is 28 and 7.

(And before you ask: no, I’m not going to tell you which values I labeled as common, and which I labelled as near or far, because that’s not the point here. If you already know me, you can probably guess.)

Now, you might be thinking, if I did the experiment on a different day, I’d collect different samples, and I’d get a different result. This was especially clear in the humorous pictures, because some of them depended on the time of year for their effect. For example, I got a lot of Douglas Adams references, because one of the days I was collecting the images was “Towel Day”. I also got a lot of Star Wars images because I was collecting my samples on May the 4th. Similar effects can also influence the memes that were expressing values, for instance if the dataset is collected during a religious holiday. Therefore, the figure I just quoted above might not be very accurate. Well, to address that possibility, I ran the experiment again two weeks later. And here’s what I got the second time.

Second set = 470
Total Religion, Causes, Political, Second Set: 243 (100.0%)
Common values = 157 (64.6%)
Near values = 77 (31.6%)
Far values = 9 (3.7%)

As you can see, it’s a slightly different result. The total collection was larger, and there were a lot fewer distant values represented. And among the comic pictures, there were a lot more references to Doctor Who. But overall it wasn’t a big difference. In fact the fraction of pictures which expressed some kind of value was still about 50%, just as before. So if I add the second set to the first, and do the math again, I can get a more accurate result, like this:

Both sets combined = 474 (100.0%)
Common values = 307 (64.7%)
Near values = 141 (29.7%)
Far values = 26 (5.4%)

New DQ = 30 and 4.

Now, I don’t know whether that figure is high or low, because I have no one else’s data to compare it to. And I also don’t know whether it would be good or bad to have a high DQ, or a low one, because, well, that’s a value statement too!

But what I do know is that I can now accurately measure the extent to which my intellectual environment has a real range of different ideas and opinions. I can measure how much “otherness”, social or religious or political “other-ness”, exists in my world. I can also measure how much I prefer the somewhat less stressful company of people who think more or less the same way I do. Or, I can also measure the extent to which my intellectual environment serves only as a kind of echo-chamber, repeating back to me my own ideas without examining them very deeply.

But the really fun part of this experiment is that you can do it too! What’s your DQ? Post your results in the comments section below.

And did you find this exercise useful and fun? If so, please support The Campaign for Clear and Present Thinking. I’m considering including this exercise in the project.

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3 Responses to How much variety is in your world?

  1. Lis says:

    I just took the time to give your post a thorough read-through today (yay for holidays!) and I do find it enjoyable to see you conducting these experiments. I have not conducted my own but I suspect if I did I would find similar results, likely with a notable influence in the fact that the “far” values would mostly be reflected in memes shared by family members or persons I was acquainted with prior to high school or even college. Since college I have put conscious effort into locating like-minded acquaintances, so that would be no surprise!

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