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Facebook and the Influence of Social Networks

Recently I read an article about how we are influenced by our digital social networks. I assume that most of us are familiar with the proverbial phrase “you are who your friends are”. This same idea may also be applicable to your digital friends and your friends digital friends and your friends friends digital friends. And if you are active in one or more social networking cites than that is probably a whole lot of individual many of whom you have probably never meet either face to face or digitally.    The article, Obesity, STDs flow in social networks by Elizabeth Landau, reiterates the idea that we are impressionable creatures and that those impressions may just as easily be made digitally as in person.  “New research shows that in a social network, happiness spreads among people up to three degrees removed from one another. That means when you feel happy, a friend of a friend of a friend has a slightly higher likelihood of feeling happy too,” states Elizabeth Landau in the article  Happiness is contagious in social networks and the video The Power of Social Networks . The same may be true for your eating habits, voting preferences, etc. However Landau explains “at the fourth degree the influence substantially weakens.” Dr. Nicholas Christakis the author of “Connected,” and Dr. James Fowler an associate professor at the University of California, have expanded on this new theory to explore the trends in cigarette smoking and obesity. An article by Fowler and Christakis in New England Journal of Medicine stated that when an individual quits smoking than their friends’ likelihood of quitting smoking was 36 percent. Moreover, clusters of people who may not know one another gave up smoking around the same time”.

These theories are still in their initial stages and somewhat experimental.  But, it will be interesting to see how their might affect other areas such as marketing and advertisement placing.  Already Facebook advertisers target their ads to individuals based on their personal information, tastes, hobbies, opinions, etc. so that their ads will be more appealing and you are more inclined to make purchases.  It will be interesting to see if knowledge of your friends and social spheres will increase that.

However, some people are unnerved by this influence or find that the lines between different aspects of their lives have become too blurred.  Christopher Butcher is an employee of The Beguiling a comic book store and has a Facebook group for the Toronto Comics Arts Festival. Butcher explains that when Facebook was just for college students it “provided a inbuilt system of boundaries” but when everyone was able to join, Facebook “lost the aspect where what network you’re in defines the information you get.”

Similarly Fowler and Christakis have proposed that even though individuals may call hundreds of people on Facebook and other social networks their “friend”, or an equivalent term that points to some sort of connection or interest in an individual, the number of close friends that a person has did not necessarily change.  Christakis and Fowler found that people had approximately “between six and seven close friends on Facebook, which is not far from sociologists’ estimate that most people have four to six close friends in real life”.  They believe that a better measure of friendship is found though pictures.  If individuals tag each other in posted photos than they are more likely to have a close relationship not just the person you sat three rows behind one semester in class but never talked to.  Overall Fowler states that social networks like Facebook and Myspace are “just yet another way through which humans exert their inherent natural tendency to try to connect to other people that they care about.” With this knowledge it will be interesting to see how social networks evolve in the years to come.

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