Hidden Influence of Social Networks – Lunch w/ TED

Lunch with TED, Technology — By on June 3, 2010 at 12:00 am

This week, Nicholas Christakis explores the “widower effect,” the increased probability that one will die because one’s partner has fallen gravely ill or has died.  Christakis contends that not only is the effect a real, measurable phenomenon, but it has a bigger influence than researchers first thought.

I’d like to consider three key arguments Christakis advances.

First, Christakis argues that one’s social network shapes one’s experience of the world.  To this end, he argues that it is not only who we befriend, but how we befriend them.  He speaks of the “nature of the ties” between people and references the different arrangement of carbon atoms to form either graphite or a diamond.

Second, Christakis argues that Social networks are necessary for the spread of good and valuable things like love and ideas.

Third, Christakis argues “what the world needs now” is more connections because “social networks are fundamentally related to goodness.”

Regarding the second and third arguments, the counter argument must be made that social networks in and of themselves act as conduits and are neither good nor evil.  Rather, it is the persons within the networks that influence whether good or evil things spread through the network.  The argument that connections vis-a-vis social networks are fundamentally related to goodness falls apart when one considers a social network of slave traders and buyers.  As the book of Proverbs reminds us, “make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.”

That being said, it seems that churches and Christian schools and universities could learn a lot from understanding the importance of social networks to advancing good ideas or loving action.  Having spent most of my life as a good Christian in the pews, it seems to me that many within Christianity see “networking” as an evil practice that necessarily results in using people as a means to an end rather than treating them properly as people, an end unto themselves (to put it in Kantian terms).   As a result, very few churches or schools that I’ve seen have solid networks established and, ironically, end up using the same handful of people to solve problems because they do not have a network of people upon whom they can crowd-source for funds, ideas, or action.

Regarding Chrstakis’ first argument, I do not have a conclusive thought so much as a question to ponder and discuss in the comments section.  If it matters how we form our networks, then what is the impact of social networking via Facebook which fails to account well for how we are connected to our “friends”?  Facebook doesn’t consider our “place” in the network, it only connects us to, and inundates us with information from, more people than we’d naturally be connected to.

How is Facebook, considered from a social network perspective, shaping our experience and perception of the world?  What behaviors have you developed because of Facebook?  To what degree do status updates, shared links, and other similar things shape your inflow of news and information and, ultimately, your perspective on the world? ‘


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