The idea that social networking is contagious is not new or novel. Web-savvy folks already know how the simplest and silliest images, videos or sites can spread like the flu as illustrated by terms such as “viral video” or “memes.” Most people don’t think of their interactions offline as social networking since the phrase has come to represent a new media/web2.0 phenomenon but that’s exactly what they are, right? Your group of friends, colleagues, associates and family are all part of your social network and may or may not be interrelated at some point. Regardless of where your network is primarily located (online or offline), your social network can have a profound effect on your own choices and behavior, influencing everything from what music you download purchase to how much you weigh.
The idea that social networks impact our preferences from the simple (music selection, what to wear) to the important (voting, spreading disease) is examined in the book “Connected,” by Dr. Nicholas Christakis (sociologist and physician) and James Fowler (political scientist). Christakis’ and Fowler’s research found that within three degrees of separation, we have a significant impact on one another’s behavior. “That means that your friends, your friends’ friends, and your friends’ friends’ friends may all affect your eating habits, voting preferences, happiness, and more. At the fourth degree, however, the influence substantially weakens.” Hmm, so taking an example from my own friends (with a little help from Facebook), my pal Travis, his friend Crystal and her friend Sakina (who I have never seen or heard of) can all have an impact on my life? Sakina’s friend Johnathan from Ohio State, however, wouldn’t really make a difference at all Wow.
It’s not so much of a big deal if Sakina’s preference for the new Ginuwine album leads to me somehow listening to some tracks. That’s like the social media equivalent of the contagious yawn. Christakis and Fowler have found that the impact can be greater than that, impacting your physical body. “If a mutual friend becomes obese, it nearly triples a person’s risk of becoming obese.” Forget the fact that Sakina lives in North Carolina, ” you’re still at risk for gaining weight if a friend 1,000 miles away gets bigger.” Um, you guys know that I have issues with the obese set. Luckily I don’t have to concoct some new Facebook Quiz (How Much Do You Weigh and How Many Miles from Brooklyn Are You?) to parse my friend list. The researchers found that people who 86’d their chubbo friends were even more susceptible to obesity. That’s internet karma coming at you. “On the one hand, yes, our work showed that if you keep your friend, you are going to be susceptible to their bad behaviors,” says Fowler. “On the other hand, time and again, what our work shows is that every friend makes you healthier and happier.” Aw. Warm fuzzies!
Americans are a funny breed. We value traits like independence and autonomy. We like to be in control of our own lives for the most part, yet most of what we do and feel is tainted by the actions and feelings of those we socialize with… and their friends, and their friend’s friends. So what is the takeaway from all of this? We are not in this alone and we are all connected with one another. What you and I do matter, not just to you and I, but to people we may not have ever met. It certainly lends a little more weight to the idea that one person can make a difference. Thoughts?