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Book Review – Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives – How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do. Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler

January 27, 2012

In our thinking about the support networks of people with disabilities and their families over the past few years there are a few books that we really like.     This social science classic from 2009 (republished with a reading group guide in 2011), Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives – How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do, by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler.    The authors move from the idea of a “bucket brigade” – a community organized for one purpose “a very simple social network” to the idea of a telephone tree, in which a 100 people might need to be quickly contacted to let them know something important, to examining other kinds of social networks and how the people in them influence each other, send messages, make decisions, make moral choices, and continue to influence beyond the initial group.   On the cover it says, “How your friends’ friends’ friends affect everything you feel, think, and do” and quotes Daniel Gilbert, who said “If someone you barely know reads Connected it could change your life forever.”

Connected is an articulate book of very contemporary research collected together to demonstrate how different communities work and interact together.  Take this idea, for example:

An extra $5,000 in 1984 dollars (which corresponds to about $10,000 in 2009 dollars) was associated with only a 2 percent chance of a person being happy.   So, having happy friends and relatives appears to be a more effective predictor of happiness than earning more money.   And the amazing thing is that even people who are three degrees removed from you, whom you may have never met, can have a stronger impact on your personal happiness than a wad of hundreds in your pocket.   Being in a particular spot in a social network, exposed to people with particular feelings, has important implications in your life.  (p. 51)

These ideas come out of pretty complicated mathematical formulas (“a person is about 15 percent more likely to be happy if a directly connected person . . . is happy . . . [and] at two degrees of separation (the friend of a friend) is 10% . . .  at three degrees of separation (the friend of a friend of a friend), it is about 6 percent” (51).   From politics, to health, to creativity and safety – social networks matter, and the two authors have brought together lots of proofs from sources as wide ranging as crime stories to studies of social behaviours in video games, such as the story of the dragon Hakkar in a World of Warcraft game, who spread an infection which other players with avatars who had healing powers rushed to try to deal with.   In the process many of the altruists gave up their “virtual” lives for strangers, closely resembling behaviours that occur in real life.

One of the questions the authors are asking is what happens when social interactions, built “solely on face-to-face communication” over thousands of years, are taken into new realms.   Their answer is interesting:

new technologies . . . just realize our ancient propensity to connect to other humans, albeit with electrons flowing through cyberspace rather than conversation drifting through air.   While the social networks formed online may be abstract, large, complex, and supermodern, they also reflect universal and fundamental human tendencies that emerged in our prehistoric past when we told stories to one another around campfires in the African savanna.   Even astonishing advances in communication technology like the printing press, the telephone, and the Internet do not take us away from this past; they draw us closer to it.  (257)

This is a fascinating book for those who are interested in the power of networks and communities, online community building, or how messages travel through networks.   It is well researched, with great resources and lots of really good stories and examples.  It’s not the kind of book that I can sit down and read from cover to cover for pleasure, but it is a pleasure to “dip” into it (have a pencil handy to note your favourite pages because there will be lots of them).   The new reading guide is very helpful.

You can read more about the authors and their work here, which includes a link to the TED talk abut this work.

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