What we know can decide who we know
Why students change friends rather than grades
We tend to like people who are similar to us – it’s called homophily. Our social connections are usually built on those who share our beliefs, values and behaviours. Despite a world in which online networks allow almost unlimited connections, it seems student’s social networks become more homogenous over time, with academic performance being the key common trait.
Researchers at Higher School of Economics and the Vienna Medical University studied data from the VKontakte social network (a Russian based Facebook-type platform) and found this homogeneity is not the result of some students changing their academic performance, it’s that they change their friendship networks. If the starting point is a range of higher and lower performers, students (over time) begin to self-select those who perform at about the same level and unfriend those who don’t.
The friendship networks of 6000 students were tracked over 42 months, along with academic performance. The researchers found no signs of a ‘pull’ effect, where bad students improved their performance to enjoy the company of those getting better scores.
While these findings are not necessarily surprising – it’s hard to maintain friendships with those earning, learning or doing more than us – they help explain how we continue to perpetuate social inequality and segregation. Online social networks, while they allow far more wide spread sharing of views, serve as massive Confirmation Bias engines, reinforcing our values and beliefs as we block those who don’t agree with us. This in turn can reinforce the biases that perpetuate inequality, as we segregate ourselves into our peer groups and lose touch with those from different ‘tribes’.