How Social Networks Shape our Lives

We’ve all heard that “a whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.” But in terms of groups of people, where does the “greater” part come about from? What social arrangements allow for more effective groups?

In order to begin expounding on this I need to explain a little bit about what most sociologists consider a “group” to be. I’m also going to have to explain network theory.

“A group can be described by an attribute — for example, women, democrats, lawyers, long-distance, runners, or as a specific collection of individuals to whom we can literally point. (Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape our Lives).

A network is more than a collection of people, or a group. There is a particular set of connections among members. The certain patterns woven because of these ties are more important than the individuals themselves. They give a group a power that can’t be possessed by a disconnected group of individuals.

And understanding what makes up these ties is how we understand the way networks operate.

Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, is a professor at Harvard University with appointments in the Departments of Health Care Policy, Sociology, and Medicine and James H. Fowler, PhD, is a social scientist who conducts research on social networks, political participation, the evolution of cooperation, and genopolitics, describe several different types of networks in their book Connected.

There can be a group of say a 100 people represented by a circle or node, in which there are no ties whatsoever. There can be a line of a 100 people making up a “bucket brigade” — where the person behind you passes you a bucket and then you pass that bucket forward to the person in front of you — for a total of 99 ties among the group. Each member of the group is connected by a mutual tie, excluding the first person in line and the last.

All the more you can have a “telephone tree.” For example think about what people had to do, before television, radio and the internet to inform citizens of a school cancellation. You might generate one list of all citizens and their phone numbers, and have them call one another. Out of 100 people you’ll have 99 ties. The 1st person calls 2 people , who each call 2 people, and so forth resulting in a cascade of calls of everyone getting contacted. However in this instance, everyone, with the exception of the 1st and the last people in the tree, is connected to 3 other people, with one inbound tie (the individual they get the call from) and 2 outbound ties — the people they direct calls to. No mutual ties exist. The ties and flowing of information is directional.

What are some common rules of a network?

There are many characteristics and features that make up a social network. A network can be as simple as a “bucket brigade” or as complex as tracing your ancestors across varied communities.

To begin, there has to exist connection — that is, who is connected to whom. The pattern that emerges as a result of these connections is now as a network’s topology. The definition places on particular ties is how we construct and visualize a network. For instance these can be personal or anonymous; temporary or lifelong; free-and-easy or intimate and intense. Many social ties. Many social networks.

Next there is “contagion,” which makes up the flow that connects the ties in a network. this can be fashions, money , violence, depression, bacteria, etc… And each of these flows is connected to a set of rules. For example, bacteria can not affect someone that is immune; fashions don’t happen without trend-setters; violence happens as a result of unfair treatment or misplaced judgements..etcetera…

In order to comprehend how social networks operate we must observe the structure and function(s) that constitute its rules. And in so doing, we can observe and explain how ties can cause the whole to be greater than the sum of it’s parts.

How do we shape our network(s)?

We humans continually construct and recreate our networks on an recurring basis. We have conscious and unconscious proclivities to be influenced and associated with people who are like us. The sociological word for this phenomenon is called “homophily.” The word literally means “love of being alike.” Whether we’re talking about Mormons, Harley Davidson bikers, Liberals, Conservatives, baseball fans, etcetera, we all search for meaning among people who share our interests, aspirations, histories. Moreover, we choose the structure of our networks in various important ways. We decide things like how many people we have the ability to connect to. We decide who we want to be around in our free time. We decide what relatives to stay in the loop with and which to avoid. We decide (more often than not) how to interconnect our relationships, or who we introduce to who. Furthermore, we try to control how we are going to be thought of in each of our circles. For example, at work you might be reserved and apt to obey instructions, and at a party be the person cracking all the jokes, making everyone laugh.

And of course, these social network structures can be imposed on us (blood relatives that raise you).

In fact, today we understand quite a bit about how individuals differ in relation to how many friends/peers/acquaintances/ social contacts we have and in how interconnected we actually are. However analyzing these interconnections can get tricky, because of the level of connection individuals share with one to another. Most people can only fit who they connect with into the palm of their hand. In other words, some people choose to shape their network into only strong relationships, while others are less intense and fair-weather friends — never spending any real meaningful time and attention to any one particular relationship.

Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, is a professor at Harvard University with appointments in the Departments of Health Care Policy, Sociology, and Medicine, sampled more than 3000 randomly chosen Americans to get a glimpse as to how many close social contacts people had. What they found was that the average American has between 2–6; and about 12 percent put down that they had no social contact(s) whatsoever to spend free time with or discuss important matters. And on the opposite end 5 percent reported having at least 8. The sociologist Peter Marsden labels this grouping of people as a “core-disscusion-network.” In the 80’s he studied 1,531 people and discovered that as people aged their “core-discussion-network” decreased for both men and women, and those holding college degrees have core networks twice as large as those that did not graduate high school. (p 311 footnote 9)

All the more, Christakis analyzed the interconnections of social contacts, or “core-discussion-networks.” In other words, if a person said that Tim, Doug, Joe and Sally were his friends, they were asked if Tim knew Doug, if Tim knew joe, if Tim knew sally doug new joe, and so forth. With these answers they calculated the probability that any 2 of a person’s friends were also friends with each other. Finding the probability simply helps you understand how tightly interwoven a network of people can be.

A relationship is transitive if you know Josh, and Josh knows Kyle, and Kyle knows you ( i.e. the three of you form a triangle). Some of us have friends that don’t know each other and some of us are in the middle of our network.

According to Christakis, those with high transitivity are usually deeply embedded within a single group, while those with low transitivity tend to make contact with people from several different groups who do not know one another, making them more likely to act as a bridge between different groups. In all, they found that there is a 52 percent chance that the average american has 2 social contacts that know each other.

These evaluations can give shape to network. We can make evaluations about it’s characteristics; and also learn about what is not seen or easily observable in plain sight. In the vastly woven tapestry of humanity, each person in connected to his family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, farther than the eye can see — resulting in everyone, in one way or another, being connected to someone else. We, especially today, are not constrained by social and geographic limits, but surrounded by and connected in ways worth discovering — and learning from. It literally is a “small world.”

A very famous example, of this “small world” phenomenon is spelled out in a compelling article written in the 50s by Manfred Kocken and Ethel de Sola. In a small town hospital in Illinois one of the researchers overheard a Chinese patient in a bed next to him say: “You know, I’ve only known one Chinese before in my life. He was — from Shanghai.” in response the other patient relies , “Why that’s my uncle.”

If we shape our network, then how does our network shape us?

How your friends, and other social contacts are friends amongst each other plays into the importance of how we experience life. Transitivity affects affects everything in your life from: who you choose to be your close friends to whether or not you will commit suicide.

Take marriage for example: if a child’s parents are connected through marriage, there’s a better chance that their communication will flow through you; if your parents are divorced, this disconnection challenges the coordination often required when raising a child. As a result, it’s fascinating to understand the child’s deep connection to both parents — and how it morphs and takes on a different shape because of the divorce. A child’s life takes on a different course as a consequence to the disconnection among their parents.

According to Christakis, when the people you are connected to become better connected, it reduces the number of hops you have to take from person to person to reach everyone else in the network. You become more central.

We readily yield to whatever is flowing through our network. Your centrality affects everything about you: from the career you take on to the money you make to the things that make you happy or sad.

How do our immediate friend’s and their friends’ friends’ and their friends influence us?

We humans are not only influenced by our immediate group of friends. People also influence their friends’ friends, and their friends friends’ friends’ friends. Whether we’re online or offline, messages passing through network lines morph from person to person, group to group, tribe to tribe, community to community.

People are perfectly capable of distorting facts and opinions introduced and shared amongst each other. Most parents teach their children to wash their hands because their are germs in many places that people put their hands. In other words we all learn that we can be impacted by people we’re unrelated to.

All the more, we have learn as a species that we’re better off together than alone. Following a major mythical flood, the book of Genesis illustrates how humanity united together to form a whole greater than the sum of it’s parts: And the Lord said, ‘Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language…and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.’ That said, the Babylonians’ main goal was to construct a tower , big enough to reach the heavens. As a result, God ends up demolishing their tower, because of their lack of connection and coordination — scattering them across the earth. Simply because they didn’t come together, they were punished.

Throughout history we observe philosophers, theologians, biologists, economists, social scientists, etcetera, as they point to social connectedness as the driver of humanity. Our ability or lack of ability to connect determines and distinguishes us from other animals. The French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes (In the Social Contract) about the state of humanity being full of hostility, devoid of laws or morals. In order to feel safe and secure, we humans band together into teams, circles, tribes, villages, states. The networks with the strongest hyper-connectivity increase the collective greatness of our species.

What happens as we grow collectively?

The most interesting communities take on a life of their own. they are born, grow, alter for the greater good, survive and parish. From different mediums like linkedin to facebook, our contributions out-measure anything one person could do alone. By coming together we transcend the value that a single individual can create.

Throughout history we humans have learned to cut across people and time through norms of trust: oral histories to online wikis. our ability to perform computations pools myriad decisions into important results: who is the most popular to be president; how much should one charge for a product; etc. Despite the intelligence of one individual, we have been able to transcend what we can accomplish from roads to rail networks.

What’s more, Christakis and Fowler, give a great example of how social networks have a memory of their own, (that is , they stay structurally intact as people come and go). For example, if you join a trusting network of people, you benefit from that trust and are shaped by it. In many cases, it is not that just the people in your network are more trusting, or even that their trusting behavior engenders trust in you; rather, the network facilitates this trust and changes the way individuals behave.

A lot of us like to delude ourself into thinking that we’re not being influenced by other people (i.e. what we choose to buy, think, do, go). That said, what are the invisible forces that shape who we choose to be? And can it influence how motivated we are to not give up?

To answer these questions, first lets start where the field of social psychology started: 1800s researcher Norman Triplett.

Norman Triplett

Triplett analyzed race data from over 2000 cyclists.(p.188 berger) He posits that cyclists race 1 of 3 ways: alone; head-to-head in direct competition with other cyclists; and/or against the clock — having another cyclist race ahead to set the pace.

What Triplett noticed about these 3 invisible forces is remarkably obvious:

He noticed that cyclists were faster when they biked at the same time.

In competition or not, cyclists who raced with each other cycled 20 to 30 seconds faster per mile.

Going deeper into discovery, Triplett created another experiment in which he took a group of kids, gave them a fishing reel with a flag attached to the fishing line, and timed how quickly it took the children to wind the wheel, either working alone or with each other. as a result, the children had something in common with the cyclists — the kids reeled individually faster when side-by-side with a competitor. In all, these results echo a lot of data positing that people perform better when others are around; rather than in isolation.

This phenomenon can be defined as social facilitation. In the same way that humans find influence to push themselves — other species can be observed similarly. Ants dig 3 times as much sand when working alongside other ants, even if they aren’t cooperating. And the same can be said for eating: humans and animals eat more when around other animals that are eating more.

In contrast, there is also a lot of research pointing towards people doing worse when others are around. Wharton professor and bestselling author, Jonah Berger give us an example of how college students were given the difficult task of remembering a list of nonsense syllables. Those who learned the list in front of an audience took longer when spectators were present.

Taken together, this begs the question: how do others motivate and demotivate our performance? And how far does influence go?

For starters, picture a stone skipping across water. From the initial stone plopping into the water and the ripples it creates, the energy starts out with a certain volume and it spreads and diminishes. Socially speaking, there is a decrease in faithful information as it is broadcasted among degrees of influence. In other words, someone in a remote part of the world doesn’t get the most honest and true information from someone else in another remote community. Your friends’ friends’ friends’ friend doesn’t have the most reliable information.

Because of the explanation of “Intrinsic-decay” and “network-instability” we can put forth that a communities reach doesn’t influence the world. For instance, if you have 10 social contacts, including 3 friends, 3 neighbors, and 4 family members; and in turn each of these people has the same number of connections, you are indirectly connected to 200 people at 2 degrees of separation.