We all know that everyone is a product of their environment. Circumstantial life events, influences, and surroundings can further change our behavior. Social media already highly influences our shopping, relationships, and education. But how large of a role does networking through social media play into our lives? Maybe more than any of us realize.
Although exceptions exist, research suggests that most social networks primarily support pre-existing social relations. For the most part, Facebook is used to maintain existing offline relationships or solidify offline connections, as opposed to meeting new people. These relationships may be weak ties, but typically there is some common offline element among individuals who friend one another, such as a shared class at school. This is one of the chief dimensions that differentiates social media from earlier forms of public communication such as newsgroups. Research in this vein has investigated how online interactions interface with offline ones. Facebook users engage in “searching” for people with whom they have an offline connection more than they “browse” for complete strangers to meet.
While social networks are often designed to be widely accessible, many attract homogeneous populations initially, so it is not uncommon to find groups using sites to segregate themselves by nationality, age, educational level, or other factors that typically segment society, even if that was not the intention of the developers.
The link between social networks and social epidemics
I recently stumbled across a book entitled Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. The book looks at the relationship between individuals and their networks of people that either directly or indirectly influence their lives. In their account of the pervasive and often bizarre qualities of social networks, the authors explain why obesity is contagious, why the rich get richer, and even how we find and choose our partners.
We like to think that we are largely in control of our day-to-day lives, yet most of what we do, from what we eat to who we sleep with, and even the way we feel, is significantly influenced by those around us’ and those around them, and those around them. Our actions can change the behaviors, the beliefs, and even the basic health of people we’ve never met. In a subtle fashion, social networks help spread contagions; create “epidemics” of obesity, smoking and substance abuse, disseminate fads and markets, alter voting patterns, and more.
Social networks can harbor a flow of generally undesirable things such as anger and sadness, unhappiness, but good things also flow like happiness, love, altruism, and valuable information. “It is the spread of the good things that vindicates the whole reason we live our lives in networks,” Christakis says. “If I was always violent to you …you would cut the ties to me and the network would disintegrate. In a deep and fundamental way, networks are connected to goodness, and goodness is required for networks to emerge and spread.”
The author suggests that our happiness is connected with the happiness of people three degrees removed from us; whether we’re happy or not depends in part on our friends’ friends’ friends.
Christakis’ first paper on obesity was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007. If someone on the Framingham study became clinically obese, their friends were 57% more likely also to become obese. A friend of a friend of that obese person was about 20% more likely to become obese, and this was the case even if the weight of the linking friend remained unaltered.
A year later came their paper on smoking, which contained similarly arresting ties. If a person began to smoke for the first time, the chances of their friend doing the same increased by 36%.
The notion that one’s behavior and actions can influence connections a step removed is pretty mind boggling to think about. And to add to that, our own behavior, actions, and habits are likely to be largely more influence and impacted by social media than we ever could have imagined.
While I take this book’s suggestions and research with a grain of salt, I do believe we have a larger impact on our social network than we believe. I don’t think that we’ll become fat because our friend’s friend is but I do believe it can play a very minute role in our health in a very minuscule way. And combined influence can make massive change.
What we update our online status to say has more of an effect on our audience than we think. From a marketing perspective, think how to positively influence your already existing customers, clients, or brand advocates online. If you can successfully create positive emotions around your campaign or brand in any way, the ripple effect can be more pervasive and influential than you might think.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.