Book Notes & Thoughts: Connected

Connected: How your friends’ friends’ friends affect everything you feel, think, and do, by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler.

My summer reading list is quite long… I hope I’ll get to read and blog all of them, so here we are, starting strong, with the first one: Connected. As per usual, this is not a formal essay on the book but rather some quotes I thought were interesting and my reflections on reading.

  1. Networks as a “superorganism.” (p.xvi) This makes sense to me. The properties of the network that are emergent. They don’t exist in the individuals but exist only in the relationships of the parts. This book is a study of the structure and function of human networks. What’s the point? If we understand this, we can use a networked approach to understand and solve problems. This is hopefully where my doctoral research is heading within the context of education.
  2. Network diagrams are really beautiful pictures (p.12), but it’s quite hard to determine their shape. Yet determining the shape is important because we affect it and it affects us. Mobile technologies and interesting websites (like give interesting insights, but it’s never complete. Yet somehow I feel like this is the size of the ruler and coastline paradox. Networks are infinitely complex, so what’s actually important is knowing how you bring it into focus. I’ve thought some about open and closed networks this year with my Carnegie reading and summit, and that’s one of the things I continue to find interesting. Open networks allow space for innovation but closed networks give you the feedback you need to understand your participation.
  3. “Social networks, it turns out, tend to magnify whatever they are seeded with.” (p. 31) Hmmm… this sounds very powerful and very scary.
  4. There are several interesting chapters about characterizing the shape of networks through tracking diseases and money, among other things. I was most interested when they began talking about networking creativity. (p.162) In an analysis of Broadway musicals that succeed or fail, researcher Uzzi (1996) concludes that teams who had never worked together failed because they were not well enough connected but teams where everyone had worked together also failed, presumably because there were no interesting ideas. Ultimately, he concluded that there was a sweet spot with diversity of new people and stability of previous relationships. This has significant implications for how one might about assembling a team of people to work on a project together.
  5. Possibly my favorite chapter was “It’s in Our Nature” with the biologist in me coming out. I find fascinating the idea that we have evolved a society where there is a balance between the number of cooperators, free loaders, and punishers. Robert Axelrod’s study of a cooperative strategy, where you cooperate the first time, see what people do, and then copy what they do after that (i.e. if they don’t cooperate, you won’t cooperate again, but if they do cooperate, you will again). This might be a mechanism by which humans tested out a strategy and then evolved cooperative societies or doomed them to not survive. The punishers enforce social norms for people who try to free load on the system. All these roles together, Hauert and his colleagues showed, would produce the conditions where you have a mixture of these three types of people that was always in flux. Maybe I should have been a sociologist, except that I always want to know how we apply this information. I think it comes down to understanding that there are different roles in a network. As the authors say, “some people will be well connected to the social network, and others – the loners – will not.” (p.221) So how you focus networked action must be based on the roles of the players in the network, the level of resolution you want to see, and structure of the network at that level.
  6. The Hyperconnected chapter is not that new anymore. As I was reading, this chapter could have been in a number of other books. What I did pick up here, though, is something that goes along with It’s Complicated, by danah boyd (which I wrote about here). It’s not that people are different today, but our new technologies have new affordances, and these affordances change what the behavior looks like, but not necessarily the motivators or biological drives. Another piece that I would argue is that the authors over-idealize the ability to assume an avatar and have it treated as just the avatar. I don’t remember and can’t find the source (so if you know it, please add in the comments) of where I read this, but the text that you type is gendered, from the structure of sentences, the frequency with which you agree with the other person, the way you frame questions or statements, the vocabulary choice: all of that is gendered and cultural. There is less distinction between you and your online avatar than I think they make it sound.
  7. The last chapter, The Whole is Great, gets as the good stuff, getting back to the human superorganism and what we do with all this information and understanding. Social networks do not belong to people – they are properties in between us – and we can share these as a resource for public good. Public goods are available to all and not diminished by people’s use, but they are difficult to start and maintain, mostly because it’s hard to get people to pay for them. Of course, the authors point out, not all networks produce good things, with obvious examples like drug or sex trafficking. The point that I took away here is that they need to be considered both as a factor and a resource. In education, this might be as simple as recognizing that the teachers are connected to each other, and this network will mediate whatever efforts are made to maintain or change schools. It also means that taking a networked approach is more than just “networking,” where you get a lot of people’s business cards at an event. Networked actions work with or build the structure and function of the social network, something that is already built into our lives. I find this approach hopeful, in that doing good work can be spread through a network and can positively affect friends’ friends’ friends.

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