Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives

About Nicholas A. Christakis & James H. Fowler

Nicholas A. Christakis (born May 7, 1962) is a Greek-American sociologist and physician known for his research on social networks and on the socioeconomic, biosocial, and evolutionary determinants of behavior, health, and longevity. He is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University, where he directs the Human Nature Lab. He is also the Co-Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science. (Source: Wiki)

James H. Fowler (born February 18, 1970 is an American social scientist specializing in social networks, cooperation, political participation, and genopolitics (the study of the genetic basis of political behavior). He is currently Professor of Medical Genetics in the School of Medicine and Professor of Political Science in the Division of Social Science at the University of California, San Diego. (Source: Wiki)

Connected – A Summary

The blurb of the book Connected reads: ‘Your colleague’s husband’s sister can make you fat, even if you don’t know her. A happy neighbor has more impact on your happiness than a happy spouse.’ This sets the tone as scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, begin to outline using their years of research, the role that social networks play in out lives and the surprising amount of influence we have not only on our immediate social circle but that which extends beyond it.

In the initial sections of the book, the authors walk the readers through myriad social experiences to demonstrate the importance of social networks in our lives and the concepts that are used to study and research social networks. They use examples from the real world that span from organ donations to homicides and point out that: “Our connection affect every aspect of our daily lives. (…) How we feel, what we know, whom we marry, whether we vote all depend on the ties that bind us.” They then begin to showcase through a series of examples and diagrams, the variety of ways in which people can be connected and explain how: “A network community can be defined as a group of people who are much more connected to one another than they are to other groups of connected people found in other parts of the network. The communities are defined by structural connections, not necessarily by any particular shared trait.” They also break down concepts such as network shape/ structure/ topography and position of the nodes (people within the network) explaining how social networks have two elements, the people and the relationships between people.

They then set out the principles which explain how ties can cause the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. The rules are as follows: We shape our networks (eg. through homophily where people with similar interests flock together); Our network shapes us (Our place in the network affects us); Our friends affect us (what flows across the network is crucial); Our friends’ friends’ friends affect us (behaviour flows across networks to atleast 3 degrees); The network has a life of its own (social networks can have properties and functions, emergent properties, that are neither controlled nor even percieved by the people within them eg traffic jams or stampedes or bird flock navigation). Speaking to Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment on ‘six degrees of separation’ the authors point out that social network research shows that our influence spreads till three degrees of separation. This they explain is substantial influence: “If we are connected to everyone by six degrees and we can influence them up to three degrees, then one way to think about ourselves is that each of us can reach about halfway to everyone else on the planet”.

In the chapters that follow, the authors go into detailed examples to show how networks influence the spread of joy, the search for sexual partners, the maintenance of health, the functioning of markets, and the struggle for democracy. They point out how things can also run negative as depression, obesity, STDs, financial panic, violence and suicide can just as easily spread through networks. Social networks, they point out, tend to magnify whatever they are seeded with. Hence, ‘this means that social networks require tending, by individuals, by groups, and by institutions’. The authors point out that social networks also give us a new dimension in understanding inequality. They outline how if you are happier or richer, it might have a lot to do with your position within social networks. The rich getting richer dynamic reinforces two different kinds of inequality according to them: situational (based on a person’s social economic location) and positional (based on their location within networks). The point out: “The social networks we create are a valuable, shared resource. Alas, not all people are in the best position to capture these benefits, and this raises fundamental questions of justice and public policy.” Understanding positional inequality, they posit, has such scope in helping us build policy and action that is more responsive.

In the tail-end sections of the book, the authors outline how social networks have ancient genetic roots – “genes have a big impact not just on whether we are friendly but also on where exactly we land in the vast social network that surrounds us”. They go on from there to explore what the implications of these findings might be for the hyperconnected world that we are beginning to find ourselves in. Using examples of large gaming platforms and social media they look at how the Internet might be changing pre-existing social networks, how it might dramatically create new ways of networking and being in the world and how the online and offline worlds collide or collude in our experience of those networks and their outcomes: “This vigorous movement of hum-an being and the progressive collapse of geographic space have had radical implication for the spread of everything from germs to good to information to ideas. Today we can form connections over much larger ranges than our homonid ancestors did, and we find a greater variety of individuals with whom to do so for a greater variety of purposes”.

The book concludes with thoughts and examples on how human social networks can be viewed as ‘superorganisms’ as the sum becomes greater than the parts and properties emerge which are distinct to the network and separate from the individual: “If we want to understand how society works, we need to fill in the missing links between individuals. We need to understand how interconnection and interactions between people give rise to wholly new aspects of human experience that are not present in the individuals themselves. If we do not understand social networks, we cannot hope to fully understand either ourselves or the world we inhabit.”

Further Reading and Listening:

  • The Hidden Influence of Social Networks: A TED talk where Nicholas Christakis tracks how a wide variety of traits — from happiness to obesity — can spread from person to person, showing how your location in the network might impact your life in ways you don’t even know.
  • How We Are Wired for Goodness: A podcast chat with author Nicholas Christakis.

Discussion Themes and Questions:

  • What were your overall thoughts about the book Connected?
  • Which themes caught your attention or were new to you?
  • As the authors outline the rules underpinning networks, were you able to correlate them with the networks you inhabit? If yes, which examples came to mind?
  • What did you think of the difference the authors point out between the ideas of Homo economicus and Homo dictyous?
  • Do you think social network research might play an important role in understanding inequality?
  • How do you see this kind of research manifesting itself in our present and future?