Q&A with Nicholas Christakis: Our modern, connected lives

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The TEDBlog caught up with physician and social scientist Nicholas Christakis just before his talk posted to ask him a few questions about social networks and how they affect our everyday lives. The conversation turned to evolution, Facebook, Twitter, online dating — with a quick tip on what you should be doing to speed up the search for a life partner.

How did you first decide that you would work on social networks? When did you come to that realization?

Fundamentally, I suppose this topic sits well with my perception of humanity. We are, first of all, not solitary creatures and second of all, we are deeply embedded in the lives of others. It’s very easy to forget that and to engage in an atomistic fallacy — where we think that all we have to do is study the individual components of a system in order to understand the system. That’s clearly not the case when it comes to social systems. This realization was very much to my liking, intellectually and otherwise. We cannot understand our humanity just by studying individuals.

Over the years, I’ve only become more and more interested in this topic, looking for data and ways to analyze this data. I found it more and more appealing. And then, as I said in my TEDTalk, once you start mapping these networks — they’re so intricate and so beautiful and so interesting — you just can’t help but wonder why we humans make them. Why does a spider weave its web? Why does the web have a particular kind of shape? It’s not a coincidence. You look at these webs and you think, “My God, what purpose do they serve? And, how do they affect us?” And so James (James Fowler, co-author of Connected) and I have both really become obsessed with trying to figure out how and why we form networks and how and why they affect us.

None of us are solitary, but different people reside in different places in their social networks and some are more solitary than others. Should people attempt to change their place in the social network, and can they?

That’s a complicated question. I don’t think individuals need to be too concerned with this. Generically, it’s not the case that some positions in a social network are better than others. For example, if a deadly germ is spreading through the network, you’d rather be on the periphery or you’d rather be a hermit — you’d rather not be connected to anyone. If you’re totally unconnected from the network, you’re not going to get the pathogen that’s spreading. If you don’t have sex with anyone, ever, you’re just not going to get a sexually transmitted disease. On the other hand, if you’re in one of those isolated positions in the network and what’s spreading through the network is an idea (appropriate to TED, which is invested in the spread of ideas) you’re not going to get that idea. So, whether it’s to your advantage or not to be in the middle or on the edge of the network depends on whether it’s an idea that’s spreading or a germ that’s spreading. If it’s a germ you’d rather be peripheral, and if it’s an idea you’d rather be central. Therefore, there’s no one optimal location.

There are other structural attributes of networks as well, such as how many friends you have. On the one hand, it’s great to have lots of friends because if you need help, you can get it. On the other hand, having lots of friends means that you have to offer more help, you have to come to the assistance to more people, to be responsible for more people. So, there’s no necessarily optimal location overall. Now, if we specify what we’re talking about, then it is more possible to take a stand on whether it’s better to be in this or that location in the network.

James and I think that there are deep reasons for different types of locations within human social networks — reasons that we don’t live in regular lattices. We don’t make highly ordered networks that look like salt crystals. I think we’ve shown that it’s partially genetic that we don’t. Now, it’s customary to think of human beings evolving under the pressures of the physical or biological environment — we think about how the temperature of the planet has affected our evolution, or how the altitude at which people live, or the rainfall, or the existence of predators or prey, or pathogens have affected our evolution as a species. But, in addition to the physical environment, there’s also the social environment that affects us.

In fact, one of the arguments about why we are smart, that physical anthropologists have been advancing over the last decade, has been the social brain hypothesis, which is that the reason we are smart is precisely to cope with the social complexity around us. As we began to form aggregates and live in groups, it became important to identify specific individuals, to know who was our friend and who was our enemy, to know the relationships between the other members of our group — I’m talking now over tens or hundreds of thousands of years. We evolved language to support this ability to communicate with each other, and huge parts of our brain now started getting bigger and bigger because of the means of communication. So we’ve evolved all these abilities — including insight into the minds of others, empathy — in response to the social environment around us. So now, it’s not just the physical and biological, but also the social.

I should also say that I am not a genetic determinist — I am not saying that genes are all that explain these social phenomena. Although, it would be equally ignorant to say that they play no role. Obviously, psychology and culture have important roles to play, maybe dominant roles. It’s possible. I guess what this would mean for individuals is that you can clearly influence where you are in a network and what it means for you, but it’s also clear that we are born with certain innate tendencies. For instance, we’re born shy or gregarious. A shy person could learn to be friendlier, but fundamentally they have a different taste for the number of social interactions they have.

This answer was a little meandering. I didn’t answer directly, in the sense that people can of course become aware of their location in networks and could, in principle, make efforts to modify their locations. But, on a macroscopic scale I don’t think a lot of that is possible.

Now that everyone seems to be trying to increase their influence, and their followers and friends, through online social networks, why do you think some people succeed at becoming social media superstars and some don’t?

Well, we’ve studied this phenomenon, and we concluded that the types of social interactions we have online are the same but different than the interactions we have face-to-face. And, generally speaking, we think that people are not really influenced by any old interaction online, anymore than if a stranger calls you on the phone and says you should do something that you’ll say, “Oh, thank you,” and do it. The phone is a technology used in the service of existing social ties. So, you have a particular set of friends and interactions, and the telephone is useful for you to interact with those people. It doesn’t materially change the way strangers can affect you.

One of the examples that I would give is this: Talk to your grandmother or your great-grandmother and ask her how many best friends she had when she was a girl. And, she might say, “I had one or two really best friends, and three or four close friends — we had a circle of five girls.” Ask a young girl that question today and you’ll get the same answer. Now, the young girl today will also have all kinds of other social interactions, but the fundamental reality of our interest in having close social relationships really hasn’t changed.

What constrains or enables the capacity of human beings to work in groups is not so much the technology, but rather the capacity of the human brain to have and monitor social interactions. So you can make interactions between different pairs of people more efficient, and there’s no doubt modern technologies have done that, but what really limits our abilities to interact with each other and to influence each other is a more fundamental requirement. Social media and the Internet haven’t changed our capacity for social interaction any more than the Internet has changed our ability to be in love or our basic propensity to violence, because those are such fundamental human attributes.

In fact, James and I have looked at the phenomenon of Facebook friends — and here the word “friends” is weird, we should probably say “acquaintance.” We use the word “friends” but it doesn’t mean they’re really your friends. If a random Facebook acquaintance of yours expresses interest in a movie or a book or music, it doesn’t modify your own taste in those things. But, when a real friend of yours does, among your Facebook acquaintances, you are influenced and you do change. So, these fleeting, minor online interactions may not be as influential as we think. But, online interactions can indeed facilitate an influence process among people who are actually truly connected or who have meaningful relationships with each other.

Also, the person who accumulates 10,000 followers on Twitter is unlikely to be affected by everything else that everyone else is saying — you can’t possibly be monitoring the tweets of the other 10,000. And, if the person is sending out tweets to 10,000 or 20,000 people, in a way, all they’ve done is to become a targeted broadcaster. Now, that targeting is valuable. It’s much better to send messages to people who have expressed an interest in your message, rather than broadcasting into the air, but we should be thinking about this type of interaction more as a kind of change in the way of broadcasting rather than a change in the way of social interaction.

Do you think that the same people who have thousands of friends and followers online are also well-connected in real life?

I think that’s a very good question. I think people vary, whether for biological or psychological or social reasons, in their ability to interact with others. It’s possible that someone who has 10,000 followers on Twitter is actually rather antisocial. If you met him in person, he might not be able to sustain a conversation.

In a way, I think this is one of the beauties of the Internet. In Connected, we talked about “virtuality” — there are ways in which disabled people could have able-bodied avatars, men could pass as women — you’re able to be someone different in Second Life or in World of Warcraft. In these massive, multi-player online games, you’re able to adopt a different persona. I think it’s possible that people who act one way online may materially differ in their offline interactions. So, I wouldn’t necessarily jump to the conclusion that someone who has many friends in real life or enjoys social interaction might be the same type of person who has thousands of Twitter followers. I think they’re different phenomena.

This is also a reflection of our lack of evolution of language. Just like we use the word “friend” to describe the people you interact with on Facebook, which is probably not right, we also say “social network” when we talk about Twitter. But, again, Twitter is not like the social networks that James and I study, these face-to-face networks. This is a different phenomena and we probably should use a different word for it. Maybe we should call it “selective broadcasting” instead of “online networking.” And, maybe if we did that, we would think about it in a different way.

READ MORE: Nicholas Christakis talks about the pervasiveness of our networks in our lives, our limited understanding of who we’re connected to and the phenomenon of online dating.As the book talks about the actual social network, you hit on so many things that are affected by a person’s network. Is there anything that isn’t directly affected by your place in your social network?

I think all spheres of our lives depend on our social interactions. However, we are not saying that everything is contagious or that everything is affected. For instance, clearly your eye color doesn’t spread from person to person, or your birth order. Second, we’re not saying that everything that spreads, spreads via the same mechanism. Germs spread differently than ideas, which spread differently than emotions, which spread differently than norms, which spread differently than money, which spreads differently than behavior. Again, we use the word “spread” to describe all of those things, but of course we mean rather different things when we say that money spreads or ideas spread or germs spread. And so I think it’s crucial to understand that just because something spreads doesn’t mean it spreads by the same mechanism. And, not everything spreads equally. In the case of germs, for instance, some germs are very contagious and others are not. Some ideas are very contagious and others are not. I think we need to be subtle and careful in our thinking here.

Incidentally, we also need to be subtle and careful in our methodological approach. Observing the world and concluding that something is spreading, as we describe in the book, is not an easy thing to do. This is known as causal inference — and making causal inferences of the world is not easy. People are beginning to do experiments, we’ve tried to do some experiments ourselves, where we manipulate the world to try to bolster our confidence so that we are really certain that there’s a causal process going on here — my behavior’s actually causing your behavior rather than I’m choosing to associate with you because we both have the same behavior. And so, teasing all those apart is difficult.

I guess I would respond to your question by saying that subject to the idea that it’s difficult to be sure, subject to the constraint that not everything spreads or spreads the same way, I would say that no part of our lives is unaffected.

Now, if I were you and I were studying social networks, the thing that I would be most tempted to do is to map my own social network. Have you done that?

Well, with respect to the assistance we got for the book, in the Acknowledgements we had a little network map of the people who helped us. But, I haven’t mapped my own personal social network. You’d have to talk to a lot of people to get it mapped properly. Because with any network, when you map a network, you have to discuss this really boring, technical issue called the boundary condition — you know, who do you put in the sample in order to discern their ties? Do I map my position with respect to my high school graduating class? Do I map my position with respect to everyone in the world right now? Do I have to talk to everyone else to see who they know and whether they know me? It’s not easy to do.

Incidentally, this is why some new work that we and others have been doing using administrative data is very helpful. For instance, phone companies can map the networks of a whole nation, in principle. They know who’s calling who, and they can very quickly discern where people are located in the network structure.

In general, we only have a very limited vision of our social horizon. We know something about our friends and relatives and co-workers, perhaps a little bit about what their friends and relatives and co-workers are doing, but then our vision kind of stops — we have a kind of social horizon that surrounds us, beyond which we really cannot peer. What’s interesting about people beyond our horizon is that the things that they do can ripple through the network and affect us. So right now you don’t know anything about your friends’ friends’ friends, but if your friend’s friend’s friend has the flu, they’re going to infect your friend’s friend and then your friend and then you. So, something that’s going on in this stranger is going to ripple through the network and affect you. There are all kinds of ways in which the social network all around you, which you cannot fully see, affects you, despite the very limited social horizon that we have.

In fact, some majority of people wind up marrying someone who’s less than three degrees removed from them. So, if you’re single right now that means your partner is one of these eight or ten thousand people that’s no more than three degrees removed from you and they’re just waiting for you. It’s a little spooky, actually.

So, how do we speed that process up? Is there a place in our social network that we’re supposed to be spending more time in when looking for the perfect partner?

My advice would be to spend time socializing with the friends of your friends. In a way, this old-fashioned kind of socialization is highly effective at introducing you to other people. Now, I say this knowing that a lot of people nowadays are very effectively using the Internet — in the book we say something like three percent of modern marriages, people find their spouses through and eHarmony and such, and I personally know a bunch of people who have. There’s no doubt these kinds of dating sites are highly effective, but the majority of people still find their partners through a social network process. I think that to the extent that you make the effort to socialize with friends of friends, they’re more likely to introduce you to their friends and there, as we illustrate in the book, I think that’s likely to lead to finding the right person.

But, I do think online dating is fascinating and must be recognized as a phenomenon. In the book, it’s one of the four ways that we recognized that the Internet is “the same but different.” Specificity in search is definitely something that’s new — not just in dating, but the ability to find any kind of individual. For example, 20 years ago, if you were searching for a Norwegian army veterinarian, that would not have been easy. But now, with a few clicks, you can find such a person. The same applies, of course, with partner search (although I’m not suggesting that you would be searching for the Norwegian army veterinarian as a partner, though someone surely is). The Internet facilitated that kind of interaction. There’s no doubt that there are ways in which the Internet has changed human interaction.