atom thought

26th February 2010
atom42

Last night, I was lucky enough to make it to Harvard medicine and sociology professor Nicholas Christakis’ talk about the amazing power of social networks and how they shape our lives. I thought I could offer a brief outline of it, followed by some of the concerns I found myself burdened with after I left.

Walking in 10 minutes after Christakis had started talking, I quickly realized that this was not a talk about the rather narrow view of ‘social networks’ which we’re all obsessed with at the moment.

Instead, Christakis was offering a much more interesting take on humanity, relationships and the influences that arise as a result of these relationships…

Human contagion

Not unlike the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory regarding Kevin Bacon, Christakis explored just how many degrees of separation different influences can traverse. But rather than starting with, say, political views, he started by exploring obesity. As you will be able to see the talk for yourselves here very soon (and I highly recommend it, he is a great speaker), I’ll cut to the highlight of this section: Obesity is contagious. In pub speak, ‘fat people have fat friends’. In headline horror speak: ‘lose weight by ditching your fat friends’.

Not afraid of tackling the big issues, it seems, Christakis next moved on to happiness. It would appear, according to his rather clever-looking nodal analysis, that your own happiness is affected by up to three degrees of separation.

Happy people are either friends with happy people, because life is simply more enjoyable like that, or they’re happy because the people around them make them happy. Either way, there is a contagion which traverses along a network in the way Malcolm Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point.

Christakis also touched on how different people play very different roles within a network, also reminiscent of the connectors, mavens and salesmen theories explored in Gladwell’s book.

What followed next was a worrying slide outlining a number of things which were contagious. Divorce particularly caught my eye.

Graphite or diamond?

Christakis used a brilliant analogy to reinforce the importance of networks, and to reaffirm how they create very different entities (which, he argued, are akin to living, breathing organisms). He compared graphite and diamond.

Both substances are made of carbon atoms, but they are linked together in different ways, resulting in an entirely different outcome. This focus on the connections led us to understand that it is indeed the network which is more important than the individual – a learning he was convinced would be key to improvements in tackling social issues.

Networks as ‘goodness’

The final point Christakis made touched on the dynamic nature of a network. He noted that if he was a constant source of anguish, pain and annoyance to people around him, the people in his network would cut him off. It was this, he argued, that meant networks were synonymous with goodness as, without goodness flowing through them, they would cease to exist.
A nice ending, but one that left me feeling like we had made quite a jump.

My concern is that it’s not actually goodness or happiness that makes networks work, but rather value. In many people’s lives, these two things are probably closely aligned, but not in all. If we consider value, this can mean a number of things to different people. If being part of a network adds value to my life, this might be of a financial nature. It might also be in the form of reaffirming my own crazed beliefs.

The darker side of networks: sinister alliances

This led me to think about the dark side of networks. While there are clearly huge advantages in the technological advances we’ve seen recently, they also open the door for people to spread views and opinions which are detrimental to our collective wellbeing. Further to that, these networks will allow people to tap into like-minded people to check that their views are the right ones, and that the road they’re going down leads to the place they should be going with their life.

The problem is, before we were able to opt in and opt out of networks so easily, our networks were formed out of the people around us. Generally speaking, this would leave a much more finite number of connections available and, unless you happened to be born on a naturist island or a terrorist camp, you were likely to have a fairly decent blend of influences. This, in turn, would allow you to take a well-rounded, informed view on the things around you to (to some extent) make up your own mind.

With today’s infinite networking opportunities, if I want to believe that everyone who is black should be killed, I can surround myself with racists who will reaffirm this believe. If I want to believe that everyone who is white should be killed, I can equally surround myself with people who believe this to be true. We’re now in a world where the balance offered by a more natural spread of influencers could be lost as people are capable of creating or joining increasingly niche networks with the potential to help shape or reinforce their particular world view.

The question this poses is, what exactly can we do to ensure that that people with an interest in how the West has treated the East over time don’t stumble into a hugely passionate, and possibly biased world of extremism, and signing up to something simply because of their susceptibility to be influenced by a self-selecting network?

The battle of good versus evil

While I remain hugely excited about the times we live in, and think endlessly about the possibilities of our modern age, it struck me last night that we must be wary of our own optimism.

It’s very possible that, for every positive opportunity out there, there might be a more sinister one created along with it. Will the spread of goodness across our newly created, mass-scale networks outpace the spread of evil? I hope so, but perhaps we should stop for a second and think about how we can encourage that to happen.

Andy

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