Tim Berners-Lee
Date: 2011, last change: $Date: 2013-03-06 22:26:10 $
Status: personal view only. Editing status: first draft. This idea was presented at various private meetings, and in public a few times incluing in my keynote to the International WWW Conference in Lyon, France, on 2012-04-18. But I haven't really written it down yet, so where goes.

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Stretch friends

We celebrate the web as a space which allows you to discover all kinds of new things people and places. We admire it as something which breaks down geographical barriers, allowing me to interact with someone on the other side of the world as easily as with the person next door. But are we really using that aspect, of it?

When we log on to a socials networking site, the site keeps a record of the people we now and suggest new people which we should know or maybe do know. The simple way xdoing this is just to pick people who are friend s of our existing friends. We are almost sure to like them, especialy if we have a lot of friends in common. So what happens if we accept these new proposed friends? Out social network becomes a solid mass of mutually connected people. We make cliques. What's wrong with this picture? It doesn't in fact add new social experience. In fact, as Eli Pariser describes in "The Filter Bubble" and his TED talk, we in fact can end up constructing a world in which we only meet people who act and think like us. So it for example, that when kids have the ability on the Net to play a multiplayer online game with anyone logged on in the whole world, they end up playing with the kid next door, maybe even the kid at the other end of the couch. This is good for the cohesion of the neighborhood, but is it good for the planet?

Supposed once in a while when the system suggests a friend, it offers a Stretch Friend. A stretch friend may be almost Identical to you, but differs along one axis. You are a white male liberal geek in New York and you are offered a black male liberal geek in New York or maybe a white male liberal geek in Saudi Arabia. It get the idea... You are asked to cross one boundary, of race, color, creed, intellectual interests, political leaning, culture, location. Just one at a time. Maybe more later, but for now, let's see how you get on. Can you put the effort in to talk to someone whose life or beliefs or interests differ along one axis?

If you could, and lots of people had stretch friends, would the world be an incrementaly better place, or maybe after a while a dramatically different place?

Nate Silver, who is famous for his insight into how people vote, in a TED talk @@@ explains his puzzlement that why in the election which first elected Barack Obama to the US presidency, thee was a general shift toward the liberal side across the whole country ... Except for a bit of it. Certain demographic didn't shift, and he wondered why. Who were they? He found they were the people who, when asked, said they just could not imagine a black person being president if the USA. And who were those people, then? Well, they were by strong correlation the people who answered "no" to the question, "Have you ever lived or worked with someone of a different race". @@check details

So human beings have an ability to mark people outside their normal zone as being strange, or foreign, or enemy. We have evolved the neurology to become tribal at the drop of a hat, as that rather horrid experiments showed when school children wore badges saying whether they had blue or brown eyes.b@@ ref. Breaking down these boundaries, these differences of a single quality or situation which can otherwise allow us to switch into the tribal mode, therefore becomes an matter of urgency.

The stretch friend idea can obviously be done in a number of ways and expanded into more complicated schemes. It could be connected with twinning projects in which whole towns or schools pair up with partner towns or schools in very different parts of the world. (Of course when these are arranged by churches, they don't always cross religious boundaries!)

Web scientists, people who analyze these things, could do lots of math to try work out what the effect would be. Or we could just try it.


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Tim BL