I’m nearing the end of Clay Shirky’s great book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations and the gems of wisdom just keep coming. The latest one is empirical evidence of the importance of getting out of our respective fish bowls and exposing ourselves to a diverse range of people and opinion.

To many of us this is obvious. What’s much less obvious is how recommendation-driven social media are making this harder and harder.

First, a little theory.

Shirky breaks the well known term “social capital” in to two types: bonding capital and bridging capital. Bonding capital is the strength of bonds between members of an existing group. Bridging capital is the strength of bonds between members of different groups. Shirky uses the example of lending money to people to explain. He says, “an increase in bridging capital would increase the number of people you’d lend to; an increase in boding capital would increase the amount of money you’d lend to people already on the list.” (Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, pg. 222)

Next, Shirky tells of an experiment by a sociologist wonderfully titled, The Social Origins of Good Ideas. The researcher looked at a large US electronics firm undergoing restructuring and examined which managers were coming up with the best ideas for improving the company. What he found was that the best ideas came from managers who bridged “structural holes”, meaning those whose immediate social network included employees outside their own department. They even had better ideas than managers who had more connections – but all within their own departments.

This finding wasn’t all that significant. The fact that the best ideas came from managers who exposed themselves to more diverse ideas by looking outside their departments seems fairly obvious. What’s significant is when you think about this in the context of recommendation-driven social tools.

The main power of these tools is also their biggest fault: how they help us sift through mountains of information and decide what’s good via recommendations from people in our existing networks.

The problem is this creates more and more fish bowls as more people rely on recommendations from their networks to decide what’s good, what’s bad, where to live and even who to vote for. Are we not all becoming managers looking in our own departments? Do we care? We should….

The best ideas comes from exposing ourselves to diverse opinions – no matter how uncomfortable doing that may be.

So what do we do it? How do we get out of the fish bowl?

One place to start is to occasionally check out online sources that aren’t part of your network. Blog sites like Global Voices Online, that aggregate blogs from around the world is one place to start. Visiting social networks opposite to your normal fare is another way. If you lean left, check out the best from the right from time to time and vice versa.

The best ideas are there for the taking  – just on the other side of our comfort zone.