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 … Next Page »

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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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