Connected: A book review by Bob Morris

ConnectedConnected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives — How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do
Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler
Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company (2011)

How and why our connections to other people matter more, much more than any other connections do

I read this book when it was first published in 2009 but am only now getting around to re-reading and then reviewing it. Since then, the nature and extent of social media have expanded and extended far beyond anything that Tim Berners-Lee could have imagined twenty years ago when he developed his concept of the worldwide “web” of electronic connection and interaction while working as an independent contractor the for European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Currently he is the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Perhaps Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, co-authors of Connected, are amazed by the growth since they published their book.

As they observe in the Preface, “Scientists, philosophers, and others who study society have generally divided into two camps: those who think they are in control of their destinies, and those who believe that social forces (ranging from a lack of good public education to the presence of a corrupt government) are responsible for what happens to us.” They think a third factor is missing from this debate: “our connections to others matter most, and by linking the study of individuals to the study of groups, the science of social networks can explain a lot about human experience.” I agree.

This book is the result of what Christakis and Fowler have learned thus far from their research and I think they make a substantial contribution to a discussion of a question that has continued for several thousand years: “What makes us uniquely human?” They remain convinced that to know who we are, we must first understand how we are connected.

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Christakis and Fowler’s coverage.

o Rules of Life in the Network (Pages 16-26)
o Emotional Contagion (37-40)
o The Spread of Happiness (49-54)
o Big Fish, Little Pond (71-75)
o Dying of a Broken Heart? (81-86)
o Changing What We Do, or Changing What We Think? (112-115)
o Moody Markets (148-153)
o Three Degrees of Information Flow (153-156)
o Networking Creativity (162-164)
o Real Politics in a Social World (184-187)
o The Network Architecture of Political Influence (202-204)
o The Ancient Ties That Bind (213-217)
o Networks Are in Our Genes Too (232-235)
o A Brain for Social Networks (240-243)
o The Human Superorganism (289-292)

As some of these subjects suggest, there are striking similarities between the nature and extent of connections within the human brain and those that occur within social organizations such as Google+, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. I eagerly await breakthrough insights in months and years to come that increase our understanding of metacognition even more.

During a conversation near the conclusion of the book in the Reading group Guide, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler are asked this question: “What particular aspects of social networks are you currently researching? Is there anything exciting coming to light?” Their response:

“We are especially intrigued by the idea the idea that evolution may have shaped the networks humans form with one another, and we think this might give us a clue about some important questions: Why do we help each other so much compared to other species? What is the reason for the spark in love at first sight?”

Stay tuned….

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