Could “Social Contagion” Affect Online Relationships Too?

By , 09/22/2009
Running or...by lgh75

Running or... by lgh75

The cover article of last week’s New York Times Magazine, “Are Your Friends Making You Fat?” explored the “emerging science of social contagion,” the idea that our behavior is influenced in both positive and negative ways by our social environments, that “behaviors…pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses.”

The majority of the article focuses on the work of two social scientists, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, and their work in analyzing the huge amount of data from something called the Framingham Heart Study. The Framingham Heart Study is unique among medical studies because of its size, scope and duration: the National Heart Institute has been following over 15,000 people since 1948, collecting a mass of individual information both broad and deep. And for the researchers, it also importantly tracked connections by asking participants to list some of their relatives and friends as part of the study. (Christiakis and Fowler first published their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007, “The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years.”)

After years of mapping and analyzing the data, the scientists concluded that social ties did in fact influence certain kinds of behavior, so that if your spouse, friend or relative became obese, you had a greater likelihood of becoming obese too. (Refer to the full NEJM article for exact findings – the percentage was different for different types of relationships.) They also found that the effect played out over three degrees of connections, so your friend’s friend could also affect you.

The magazine piece does cover some of the critical responses to their work, including the general concern that amongst networks it can be difficult to prove cause versus correlation.

But, what struck me was a small bit towards the end of the piece about how some people are using Christakis and Fowler’s work to address broad-scale public health concerns using online social networks, and gives the example of a pending Facebook application to encourage people who are trying to quit smoking to take their struggle public and potentially influence others in their network of friends on Facebook.

Something a bit similar (but related to fitness¬†and healthy living) exists on Twitter in the form of #twit2fit and it’s corresponding network on Ning¬†(started by Jason Falls in May 2008). The article got me thinking about whether it would be possible to study the usage of #twit2fit on users health and well-being over time, and if there is a cause or correlation between usage and improved health.

What are your thoughts – do you find that sharing your goals or activities online has an impact on your potential success?

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2 Responses to “Could “Social Contagion” Affect Online Relationships Too?”

  1. Peter Moran says:

    I think sharing goals can affect your potential success. Just having other people aware of something you’re working toward can motivate you in two ways.

    First, it provides a support system or “cheering section”. Secondly, it helps drive accountability. The more people know about your goal, there’s an increased liklihood of someone checking in, or asking about your progress. Nobody likes to admit failure in front of an audience, whether in person, or online.

    The use of social media and other online tools makes the group you share with much broader. In an instant, a friend half-way across the world can send a motivational message or serve as an accountability partner.

    • Laurel Hart says:

      The two aspects of support and accountability are an interesting way to think about it, Peter. I know anecdotally I’ve found the online support to be helpful, and I’m curious to see how these characteristics play out over time.

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