Elevate Difference

Connected: The Suprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives — How Your Friends' Friends' Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do

Connected is firstly an enjoyable read. There is something compelling about seeing the familiar, mundane details of our every day social life studied from a completely different perspective. Social networks are huge and for the most part we have no idea where we fit into them or just how far they reach. In a way this is Christakis and Fowler's point. What most of us think of as our social network are the people we know and see on a regular basis. In fact, the people who may have the most influence on us, the authors argue, are the people three degrees away in our network: friends of friends. And after three degrees the influence peters out. You are more likely to be happy if your friend's friends are happy than if you win the lottery!

Connected has been criticized for stating the obvious: we are more likely to be around people similar to us (“homophily” if you're a sociologist). But the argument the authors make is that we're not aware of the extent to which these relationships affect us, and most importantly how this impact could be used to better the world. If we are more likely to quit smoking because other people in our network have quit smoking than for any other reason, this is where anti-smoking resources should be directed. Similarly, politicians should focus on encouraging their supporters to recruit people in their networks to get involved rather than trying to reach out to individuals (and the authors argue Obama did this in the federal election).

The results of studies in this book are also sometimes unexpected, especially on the largely unstudied subject of social media. For example, a study was done on a small American town where sixty percent of the residents were given free wi-fi, and the other forty percent went internet free. After two years it was discovered that the households with internet developed deeper and broader connections to other residents, with more neighbourhood ties. Contrary to popular belief this suggests online communication might augment and improve real life relationships, not replace them.

The only issue I had with the social media chapter was that it already seemed a little dated, referring to sites like MySpace and iLike that have been mostly phased out. If anything this is a testament to how quickly changing our modern social networks are, as this book was only published in 2009. If you're ready to take a serious look at the influences that affect your life, most of which are probably beyond your control, read this book and prepare to have a whole new perspective.

Written by: Jennifer Burgess, February 2nd 2011