The Impact of Social Networks – Blog Assignment #4


Social networks have been around since the early stages of man, when individuals traveled around in small hunting and gathering groups. In the current Digital Age, social networks can easily be built, defined, and tracked thanks to social networking technologies such as MySpace and Facebook.

In a recent CNN article titled “Obesity, politics, STDs flow in social networks,” author Elizabeth Landau explores how these new social networking technologies contribute to ideas and values in society. Through social networking sites, we readily share our preferences and opinions with the world, which in turn shape the preferences and opinions of others.

According to a study by Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a professor at Harvard University, and James Fowler, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, humans within three degrees of separation in social networks have a profound effect on each other’s behavior. Preferences expressed in social networks help establish “norms,” or expectations shared by all members within the network. Through “behavioral imitation,” we copy the behaviors of those in our social networks, further establishing the network’s “norms.”

Because of new social networking technologies, “norms” are more quickly defined and readily spread. The study found that if one person in a social network is obese, those closely connected to that person are three times more likely to also become obese. Obesity, in this case, becomes a part of the “norm.” The study also determined, however, that dumping the obese friend only increases the odds of also become obese, indicating that humans need many different types of friends with different preferences and world views to live happily and healthfully.

The authors of the study propose using the spread of ideas through social networks in vaccinating against diseases. Instead of vaccinating randomly, it may prove more effective to vaccinate one person and then a few more within their social network. This method is more likely to hit those that are more active and less isolated in social networks, protecting the many people with whom they come into contact. Studying social networks as defined by MySpace and Facebook may help identify the centers, or “hubs,” of social networks, allowing us to prevent the spread of disease via those who come into contact with the most people.

The ability to spread information quickly has also proven powerful in a political setting. Following the dubious outcome of the most recent elections in Iran, civilian unrest spread quickly through social networks like Facebook and Twitter, leading to full-blown uprisings. Disapproval became an established “norm,” and physical upheavals developed as people adopted the ideas of those in their social networks—through “behavioral imitation.”

Without the freedom of expression afforded by new social networking technologies, public outcries in Iran may have been completely quashed by the suppressive atmosphere and governmental tactics that prevent free speech.

This article describes phenomena that I find most fascinating: those unforeseen consequences and broader implications of new technologies—that is, effects that are not obvious to the casual observer. Specifically, the article shows how social networking leads to the establishment of “norms” within a society, the spread of ideas and even physical entities (including disease), and the reflection of cultural sentiments such as disapproval or unrest. New technologies allow these tendencies to occur much more quickly and easily. It is remarkable that something as seemingly innocent and benign as a “tweet” on Twitter could contribute to such massive change.

I can see how social networking technologies were in a very large part responsible for civilian uprisings after the elections in Iran. It also seems like an interesting (though very complicated) idea to target the centers or “hubs” of social networks in attempting to eradicate disease. However, I must take issue with the conclusion that having an obese friend increases your own chances for obesity—or in a broader sense, that we readily adopt the ideas and behaviors of those who are closest to us.


To me, this seems like a “chicken-or-the-egg” conundrum. Do we really mimic those in our social networks, or do we establish our social networks around those who already share the same values as we do? Social networks do not develop automatically; we choose which people in our lives with whom we want to interact.

Studies have found that we choose our friends and even our lovers based on our own values and characteristics. Linda Roberts, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, recently explained to the website The Why Files that humans are drawn to those of similar age, race, and socioeconomic class. In addition, we tend to be attracted to those that have the same physical features that we do.

So are we more likely to become obese if we have obese friends, or do we have obese friends because we ourselves value that characteristic somewhere in our subconscious? Do we adopt the values and behaviors of those around us, or do we choose to be around those people because we approve of and agree with their values and behaviors?

Regardless, social networking technologies allow us to more easily and more quickly communicate with those in our social networks. This will, no doubt, continue to facilitate the spread of ideas and information, reshaping the social and political landscape as we know it.


~ by Adam Mehring on October 8, 2009.

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