Never before had I considered the drastic impact that networks have on our lives. As a rather well connected young adult, I have thought extensively about relationships. However, these thoughts have often stopped at the individual relationship level, and never extended to my social networks. In their book Connected, Christakis and Fowler dive deeply into explaining the power of social networks’ influence on our daily lives. Beginning with social networks broadly, they distinguish between the ideas of connection and influence. Connection, which goes with the idea of “six degrees of separation”, indicates that six steps connect us to another person. However, they discuss the idea of three degrees of influence, suggesting that actual influence can travel three separate degrees. Therefore, we affect our friend, our friend’s friend, and our friend’s friend’s friend.
Figure 1. Three degrees of influence
But how do we affect these people? Christakis and Fowler discuss a few specific ways in which our social networks affect us:
- They affect our outcomes. Citing the “rich get richer” phenomenon, Christakis and Fowler discuss how social networks tend to reinforce both situational and positional inequality.
- They affect our emotions. Referencing examples of mass psychogenic illnesses such as this video below, they discuss how emotions are transmitted like diseases through social networks, infecting those in our sphere of influence. In this way, they discuss how emotions such as happiness and loneliness spread through social networks.
- They affect our knowledge. Citing examples of suicide contagions, social activism, and successful presidential campaigns, Christakis and Fowler demonstrate how the spread of information through social networks affects our knowledge basis and as a result impacts our actions such as voting or engaging in activism activities.
Focusing specifically on digital networks and the Internet, Christakis and Fowler address both the pessimistic and optimistic views of how the Internet impacts our social networks. On one hand, people feel that social media hinders face-to-face interaction and communication skills. However, others feel that digital networks and the Internet only extend our opportunities for social interaction and networks. I am inclined to side in the middle. I think that the Internet does provide opportunities to extend our social networks in healthy ways by providing access to wider communities and opportunities to practice social skills. However, I do think we run the risk of being consumed by virtual interactions as opposed to face-to-face interactions, and therefore, like all things, the Internet should be used in moderation for these purposes. Life is about balance.
However, the authors note that regardless of opinion, social networking sites shape social networks in four distinct ways.
- Enormity – they increase the scale and reach of our social networks.
- Communality – they extend the ways in which we share information and collaborate
- Specificity – they further particularize the ties we can make within networks
- Virtuality – they allow us to assume separate virtual identities
These are four impacts that I can agree with — and note that I have seen evidence of in my life. Generally, I think that Christakis and Fowler do a good job of explaining and evidencing the ways in which the Internet impacts our social networks, which consequentially impacts our actions, beliefs, and behaviors. At large this book has encouraged me to consider the ways in which I personally am influenced by my social networks. On a more academic level, it has prompted thoughts on how the students I work with are influenced by their social networks, and how these networks impact their decisions to engage in productive afterschool activities.
Two Quotes that struck me from this book:
- “Happiness is thus not merely a function of individual experience or choice; it is also a property of groups of people” (p. 66).
- “Loneliness can actually shape the social network. People who feel lonely all the time will lose about 8 percent of their friends, on average, over two to four years. Lonely people tend to attract fewer friends, but they also tend to name fewer people as friends as well. What this means is that loneliness is both a cause and a consequence…” (p. 70).