Everything we do is influenced by social networks. That’s what Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler argue in their book, “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives“. While it might seem obvious that if people you meet on a daily basis are upbeat and happy you’re more likely to be happy, it turns out that friends who live far away can influence a lot of behaviors such as smoking, political views, and a host of other things. In fact, their friends, by influencing them, might have an influence on you that you’re not even aware of.
Humans are a social species, so some of this is not surprising. Where it gets interesting is that we’re able to chart and measure things in ways that we never used to, making elaborate graphs of just how connected people are and how much each connection means when it comes to defining who we are and what’s likely to happen to our lives.
The implications, however are vast. The idea of a “conventional wisdom” of a culture, limited by common experiences and language, has long shaped how even very large groups confront different issues. What we’re able to chart now is how having a friend of a friend being overweight makes you more likely to be overweight. It’s deeper than what Plato outlined in “The Republic” many years ago, that large groups function as connections between individuals that know each other friend of friend. “There are no groups, only networks” is the theme of this work.
I’ve been arguing James Burke’s thesis, which I call “Connection Theory”, for about 30 years. The basic idea is that we are all influenced by what is around us and less by what we can imagine. The spark of invention is less about conceiving something completely new but one of making connections between things that already exist, imagining a new solution or idea from those bits and pieces. New work like Christakis and Fowler’s show that this is only an extension of our social nature, more from the intuition of our guts than the intellect of our brains.
Some of this is not surprising at all, but all the research into social networks shows that the effect is far deeper than we once might have thought. The chain of invention that creates the technological wonders that are all around us is, in the end, just a reflection in a mirror. Stare into it long enough and we might even be able to see how we’ll organize our lives in the future. The “trigger effect”, where the existence of one invention promotes the possibility of another invention coming along, is also how both ideas and diseases can be traced through the populations.
Social research of this kind tends to become controversial as it matures into a defined field. I expect nothing less as our understanding of social networks expands and starts to be used to explain more and more of what we do. If nothing else, our ideas about “nations” or other institutions is likely to be challenged. Tribal structures might be comforting, but our networks often extend far beyond conventional ideas about structure. That won’t sit well with a lot of people who have a vested interest in the existing way of doing things. Stay tuned.