Sunday, September 19, 2010

Flu by Association - more from Christakis and Fowler

Great new research by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler - the social network experts.  This time they've turned their attention to how people in social networks are at greater risk for getting the flu (Christakis & Fowler paper and their book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.  Jonah Lehrer has written about their work at Wired - Jonah Lehrer.
We all know that there are compelling reasons to be parts of networks, and large ones - sharing information, support, mobilization, etc.  the authors reveal a network paradox. But in this case, what the researchers show is that if a nasty germ is spreading around you're better off on the edge of a network. 
What's even more interesting than the concept is how the researchers actually operationalized the ides.
Christakis and Folwer followed 740 studets for 120 days.  Then compared the group of people who were names as friends to the group of people who were not.  Lo and behold those named as friends wound up being significantly more central in the network. And when they looks at who got the flu they found that these named friends got the flu about 14 days ahead of everyone else.
Some implications of this exciting research are that we could start predicting the course of an outbreak by monitoring networks.
But I'm also excited about the idea of social networks to spread health information and behavior change. Sort of like crossing Gladwell's "Tipping Point" with Christakis & Fowler's outbreak model.