Getting Connected with James Fowler: Social Networks in the Real World and in Cyberspace

James Fowler says his work lies at the intersection of the natural and social sciences. As a professor in UC San Diego’s School of Medicine and Division of Social Sciences, his research encompasses social networks, behavioral economics, evolutionary game theory, political participation, and the genetic basis of political behavior.

Fowler also is the co-author, with Harvard University’s Nicholas Christakis, of Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. Originally published in 2009—with a paperback version recently published—the popular book makes a persuasive case for the power of social networks, and helps to answer such questions as “Can your friend’s friends make you fat?” “Is divorce contagious?” and “Can health experts use social networks to predict epidemics?”

I sat down with Fowler last week to talk about social networks, and how they work. He told me the business community is particularly interested in applying the lessons of real-world social networking to online social networks and Internet businesses. So there is high interest in learning how social networks influence behavior, and how they can be used to prompt people to take action.

Xconomy: Is there still strong interest in your book?

James Fowler: Oh yeah! Interest in social networks is not going to go away. It might lessen somewhat as the novelty of online social networks decreases, but we’ve always had friends, and we’ve always had family members, and these have always been the most important people in our lives. The promise that that part of our life can be better understood by science is very exciting to people.

X: What’s the lowest ranking on Amazon you’ve gotten for the book?

JF: We almost broke 100 when the book first came out.

X: Where is it taking you?

JF: I go to these conferences, and a lot of the time these conferences are filled with business people who are very interested in social media. As a consequence, it has opened some doors for us. So I am actually doing some direct research now with Facebook, with their data. We just conducted an experiment that we’re writing up the results for now. And also, with 23andMe, so these health companies also are very interested in these ideas. Interestingly enough, 23andMe is a genetics company, but they realized that in order to provide information about genetics that you need to know something about the social environment as well. So we’re going to be doing research with them, but I think in the process of doing research with these companies, that they may be designing new products that are based on the insight that you have to find the real world connections in these online social networks in order to promote behavior change.

X: Just out of curiosity, how many people does the average person know?

JF: We’ve done Gallup surveys in the United States, and we use what’s called a name generator. This is a very standard technique for trying to identify who the close contacts are of people who have them. The two questions that have been used time and time again, are “Who do you spend your free time with?” and “Who do you discuss important matters with?” We just let them keep going and they sort of keep going until they’re tired of naming people, and the average person in this Gallup survey, which is nationally representative of the United States, names four to five contacts.

There are a lot of people out there who don’t name anybody. I can’t remember what the number is, but it’s on the order of 10 or 20 percent. There are a lot of really lonely people out there and there are a lot of people with a single connection, or with two. You have a lot of people who are only marginally connected to the network as a whole.

X: I thought the number was more like 100 to 150.

JF: On Facebook, the average right now, coincidentally, is exactly 150. We talk about this a bit in the book, this idea of what is a natural human group size. We have found this regularity in a wide variety of our studies that interpersonal effects can spread up to three degrees of separation. So if I start jogging, and I feel great, than you’ll be more likely to do it if you’re my friend. And your friend will also be more likely to do it, and their friend also will be more likely to do it. So it spreads up to three degrees of separation, and we can’t see it spreading any further than that.

James Fowler

X: Which is why Kevin Bacon won’t return my phone calls.

JF: That’s right! You’re too far removed from Kevin. The crucial thing is that it’s more than one degree of separation, I think we have strong evidence at this point that these personal effects spread from person to person to person. And the other crucial thing is that it’s not six. So you’re not getting to Kevin Bacon. You’re not getting to every one on the planet. You’re not going to, on average, be able to influence many people.

X: So why is it three?

JF: If you think about the fact that we have on average about five friends. That means we have about 25 friends of friends, and about 125 friends of friends of friends. Somewhere in that ballpark. We think about early human groups that anthropologists say are probably on the order of 150 people in size. You wouldn’t have been connected to anybody in those early human groups by more than three degrees of separation. If there was this evolutionary process that favored groups that could be in synchrony when it came to, say, hunting large game, or when it came to fending off attacks from other groups, than there would be an advantage to being able to influence people in that group up to three degrees of separation.

X: It seems that through your research, you’re trying to get at an intangible question of what makes a social network in the real world work versus a social network in cyberspace?

JF: The online world is really important for the spread of information. We’re going to have all this work coming out that shows the role that Twitter played, for example, in the spreading of revolution in Tunisia and Egypt. I think you’re not going to find that someone in Egypt had a friend in Tunisia, and that friend got them to do something. In other words, you’re not going to find interpersonal influence. The reason it helped is because [Twitter] is a broadcast medium. All of a sudden, everyone in Egypt could see that the possibility, the probability of success had shifted. It changed because they were able to get exposure to what had happened in Tunisia. So everybody changes all at once—just through information, not through persuasion—their calculus of whether or not they should participate in the protest. The role that social media plays, I think, most of all, is in reinforcing the notion when all people are deciding whether or not to go out that this time we have a better chance at succeeding. Which is a different thing than when we’re looking at health behaviors, for example, that I’m going to start jogging because I heard that you started jogging and you feel great and you’re my friend.

X: How did you get connected with Nicholas?

JF: Our story is a social network story. You have to forgive me, because this story is long. I was in graduate school [at Harvard] and I was very interested in this question of participation. I had been a Peace Corps volunteer [in Ecuador] and I had seen some communities utterly succeed and I had seen some utterly fail and the two communities seemed to be identical in every respect and yet you get these very different outcomes. So when I came back to the United States I wanted to study how is it that communities can get their act together, how is it that you can get people to participate in the public good? A big question in political science that is very closely related to this is this question of why do people vote? When economists think of this question, it’s just another cost benefit calculation, [such as] Is a gallon of milk worth $3.50 to me? If so, then I’ll buy it, if not I won’t buy it.

If you think about voting this way, voting is a paradox. Here’s the reason: We actually pay non-trivial costs to vote. We take time to learn about candidates, we take time out of our day when we could be enjoying leisure time or going to work. We’ll pay for things to vote. We put gas in our cars. So there are these small costs to voting. Yet the benefits to voting are actually miniscule, and here’s why: If you think about the expected value of voting the way you think about the expected value of a lottery ticket, you have to multiply the probability that you’ll get something out of your action times the benefit of your action. The benefit of your action is being able to pick the president. Let’s just stipulate that picking the president is something that most people would not spend more than $10,000 for. So what are you doing when you’re voting? When you’re voting, you’re trying to change the outcome of the election. You’re trying to get your candidate to win. But here’s the thing: If the election is won by more than one vote, than nothing you can do will change the outcome. If you vote, the same person wins as when you don’t vote. So the only time that a voter actually makes a difference is when there is an exact tie. So the probability of influencing the outcome of an election is the same as the probability of a tie, and the probability of a tie in the U.S. presidential election is about one in 10 million. That number has actually been estimated. So you have to multiply one over 10 million times whatever you’re willing to pay to pick the president, and that’s the expected value of voting. So $10,000 divided by 10 million is less than 1 cent. So if it costs you even a penny to put gas in your car to go to the polls, you shouldn’t do it. A lot of economists don’t vote for this very reason. But most people don’t think about the world this way.

I started thinking about other literature that was about social effects. People like Bob Huckfeldt [at UC Davis] who have done work on whether or not friends and family who vote tend to influence the people they are directly connected to. There is some evidence that if I vote my spouse is more likely to vote, but these effects are small. In an economic context, if I only affect you by increasing your likelihood to vote by 10 percent, than my decision to vote is my vote plus 10 percent of your vote and that’s not going to change the calculus very much. So there has to be something else going on here. We have to be making this decision not based on this economic calculus, but on something else. It hit me that even though the interpersonal effects, the direct effects, between people can be small, that the network effects can be large. So that one action can actually turn into many, spreading from person to person to person.

Nicholas Christakis (courtesy Christakis lab)

So I told my adviser, [Harvard University social science researcher] Gary King, and it clicked with him that he just heard a talk by Nicholas Christakis. Nicholas had given a talk about a very important social science question that he’s working on, which is why do widows die. One of the oldest social science correlations that we know about is that when people pass away, their spouses are more likely to die themselves. Our best guess in the United States, from very large data sets, is that when the man dies the woman loses about two years of her life. And when the woman dies, the man loses about seven years of his life. Nicholas was an end-of-life care doctor. He told a story about getting a call from someone. He worked in hospices where people were dying. And the person on the other end of the phone says, “You’ve got to help me doctor, I’m really having a hard time with this death, I’m feeling depressed, can you prescribe me something?” And Nicholas says, “I can prescribe you something but I have to apologize, I don’t know who you are.” And the person says, “Oh, I’m not [the spouse of one of your patients]. I’m a friend of one of the spouses of a person who is dying.” It was at that moment for him that it clicked that his social science program could be addressed in the context of a broader question about how health effects spread from person to person to person. So we were both really interested in the same question, and my advisor Gary King realized this and he introduced the two of us, and ever since then we’ve been fast and furious friends and collaborators.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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