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Professor Nicholas Christakis takes us into the world of social networks

18 March 2010 / 13:03:55  Elena Nikolova
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“Social networks are intricate things of beauty,” said Nick Christakis, professor at Harvard University, during his lecture. To be quite honest when I was leaving my house that night to go to the Hellenic American Union in Athens, where his lecture was taking place, I was not expecting that this thought will stay with me for days. The invitation I had gotten for the lecture said that I would need a ticket, so earlier that day I had called to see whether I will have a problem getting one. A polite lady from the Hellenic American Union told me that there are plenty of tickets so I should not worry. 

To my surprise there was a crowd in front of the building. There were even TV sets installed outside, which were going to broadcast the lecture. I became more curious of what I will hear… So I head to the hall to take my seat, again trying to pass through a crowd, trying to find a free seat in front. “I would like to start not by talking about the online social networks but about social networks as a whole”, was the first thing Nick Christakis said. With this he grabbed my attention right away and did not let go of it until the end… 

Mr. Christakis, who in 2009 was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, spoke of the “widower effect,” which is also known as dying of a broken heart. He gave a simple example of how if a family member is terminally ill, this affects you, you friends, their friends and the friends of their friends. It works as a network and the sadness spreads by finally affecting people, who do not even know the person from who this “sadness” originated. 

Then he went on explaining that we distinguish groups from networks, because network has ties. There are two types of networks – artificial and natural. The artificial one is a deliberately formed network. For example people can form a line so they can pass buckets of water to put out a fire. Because of the ties this ‘network’ can do something that just a group of people cannot do. The natural network on the other hand is not imposed from the top. Everyday social networks evolve organically from the tendency of each person to make friends. Nick Christakis continued by talking about a research he has done about how obesity can spread within a social network. Through various mathematical calculations he found out that if an immediate friend (first degree of friendship) of yours is obese, than there is a 45% chance of you becoming obese too. The amazing thing is that not until the sixth degree of friendship (friend, of a friend, of a friend, etc) people can see no affect on themselves. But it is not that your friend’s obesity caused your obesity, it is because you found a tie between you. People that resemble each other form friendships, whether they met in McDonalds or they bonded because of their body size, they now have a link between them. 

The professor went on to showing a video, on which people were represented by dots (bigger dots – bigger people) with links between them. He explained that when he started the research he wanted to see whether there is a wave of obesity that spreads from one person to another – I gain weight, than you gain weight and so on and so forth. The video showed a network of people and you could see clusters of obese and non-obese people in it. “It was the most exciting and depressing time in my scientific carrier,” Mr. Christakis said, because there was no ‘wave’ of obesity. And the reason for that is that obesity is not a unicentric epidemic but a multicentric epidemic - it does not start from one person, but from many at the same time. One thing that became certain though is that if a mutual friend gains weight, this increases ones chance to also gain weight by 200%! 

But this research was just the beginning, which opened the door to many other, even more interesting ones. You can try and refuse to eat a hamburger but can you truly control how your best friend’s mood affects you? Mr. Christakis’ research showed that ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’ people tend to cluster together and form groups. But the interesting thing is that the clusters of ‘unhappy’ people are at the periphery of the network, not in the center like the ‘happy’ groups. A good metaphor for this, Nick Christakis says, is to compare this network to a quilt filled with happy and unhappy patches. And ones happiness partially depends on which patch he or she is in. The research goes deeper by proving that if a ‘kind’ group is created than this influences the members to kind to other people as well. Finally the ‘kindness’ that started from a small group, spread to people, who have nothing to do with the people, from whom all this originated. “Networks magnify everything they are seeded with,” says Mr. Christakis and continues that obesity, emotions, ideas, germs, etc can spread within a network but they all spread in a different way.

The logical question that follows is whether the online world resembles those networks. But online social networks like Facebook are very complex. People can have 100 friends and only 6 out of them can be their real friends. In order to try and figure out what is the ratio between Facebook friends and real friends and whether emotions and everything else spreads within the online social networks, Mr. Christakis had to take a sample of students and study their Facebook profiles. He had to look at all of their uploaded photos and see who appears on the pictures, are they in close proximity on the picture, are they smiling, what are they doing and most importantly, did they label who was on the picture. Because research has shown that if people label their friends on the photos, this means that they have a real relationship. The next thing Nick Christakis wanted to see is who influences us online – is it only our real friends or even irrelevant people can have an effect on us.  The good news is that irrelevant Facebook friends have no effect on us, which is very good and I personally did not expect this result. It turns out that emotions also spread in the online world. Happy people cluster together and they have 20% more friends than the ‘unhappy’ people.

We all know that human beings live in packs. We can hardly survive alone, which is why Nick Christakis ended his fascinating lecture on a positive note by saying: “Social networks are required for goodness to flourish.” And especially during hard times we all need to have this positive view on the world. We need to support and love each other within a network, in order for our society to survive and flourish. 

Tags: Nicholas Christakis Harvard University facebook social networks
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