Three degrees of separation

Richard Handler on the genesis of social contagion.

Much has been said about the role of social media in the revolutions breaking out in the Middle East. How people are "wired" together through websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Some of this isn't new, though. Social scientists know all about the principle of what's called social contagion.

The way, for example, outbursts of giggling — a "laughing epidemic" — can spread through elementary classes and even, as in one reported case in Africa, leap from village to village.

No doubt what is happening in the Middle East is a social contagion, a kind of beneficial hysteria that leads (one hopes) to liberty.

So let's up the ante. We've all heard about the concept of Gaia, how the Earth itself can be considered a single, interconnected living organism.

Connected: A student at the Univerity of Cairo takes a photo with her mobile phone during a post-Mubarak protest on March 7, 2011, demanding the resignation of the head of the university. (Peter Andrews/Reuters)

Leaving the science aside for the moment, it is a stirring metaphor, used by environmentalists for decades.

Now there is talk about a new, wired humanity developing from our social media into a kind of "super-organism," come alive at our very fingertips.

If my rhetoric here seems a bit overheated, it is because I am taking my cues from the speculations of two scientists with sterling credentials and a somewhat dizzying approach: Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler.

Christakis, who is also a medical doctor, teaches at Harvard and Fowler at the University of California at San Diego.

Their 2009 book, written well before the current uprisings in the Arab world, is called Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our lives.

The human corral

Of course, by social networks here, the authors are not directly referring to social media.Social networks are something much older. They are how humans aggregate and come together.

We've been behaving this way from the time our ancestors were joining up in tight bands to hunt on the savannah. Social media is simply the latest extension of the ever-expanding human corral.

Now, this is obvious, you say. Human beings bunched up in groups.

But for Christakis and Fowler, how we humans do that is both an intricate puzzle and a very human dance. In fact, there is much in their research, with all its interconnecting lines and statistical indexes, that is counterintuitive and arresting.

No doubt you've heard the idea of six degrees of separation. People really get that one.

Based on 1960s research by the psychologist Stanley Milgram, it refers to the notion that we are all somehow connected to everyone else in the world as if by six links in a chain.

In other words, give a letter to one person in Calgary and it will find its proper addressee in a small village in Nigeria via a friend of a friend of a … you get the idea.

'Holding sway'

Over the years, many people have suspected that the six-degrees thing is a bit of a myth. But Christakis and Fowler tell us that these findings have been replicated.

Authors Nicholas Christakis (left) and James Fowler. (Courtesy authors' website)

But being connected to a person in, say, the forbidden kingdom of North Korea isn't what is important. What counts is what the authors call "holding sway," not just passing on a letter or a message.

This is where the two researchers introduce a new principle of their own, what they call "three degrees of influence."

This principle applies broadly to attitudes and behaviours, in other words to everything from political views, to weight gain and happiness.

Most of us assume we can influence, say, the eating habits of a close friend or partner. But how far does this influence reach?

According to Christakis and Fowler, it can reach to a factor of three; in other words to our friend's friends and their friends.

I know, it is starting to sound a bit like Facebook, isn't it?

Entering the beehive

As the authors demonstrate, start with five friends, five co-workers and 10 family members.

At three degrees of influence that's 20 x 20 x 20, or "8,000 people who are three degrees removed from you," they write.

That means 8,000 people you can have some influence over. It doesn't mean 8,000 people to whom you can dictate your beliefs.

But it does mean that you have some measurable impact over people's attitudes on such things as happiness or overeating even if you don't know them personally.

Here, of course, is where the new social media comes in. It amplifies.

By how much? No one really knows; more research will have to be conducted.

These authors tend to wax poetical about the prospects, saying things like "we transcend ourselves for good or ill and become a part of something larger."

For some, that has lead to utopian speculation about the new media landscape and the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

Simply put, it appears that we are entering into a time of beehive politics, with all of us being part of something larger than ourselves.

Tyranny's hand tool

Tyrants and dictators, of course, appear to understand not only the principle of social contagion but also, intuitively, the three-degree rule.

That's why instilling fear at the grassroots has always been so important to keep tyrannies functioning.

In modern times, totalitarian rulers seem to have understood that you must never allow any independent civic institutions to exist. Create an umbrella of fear even in the family.

Only the dictator and his police should hold sway. Think Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi.

But we humans are imitative creatures and social networks can operate as if they had a life of their own.

Think of birds or fish that suddenly change direction, as if on a collective whim. Humans seem to be able to do that, too — veer quickly en masse to overturn a tyranny.

We may want to think this is the product of independent minds, but clearly it is not. And you don't have to believe in utopian promises of a Gaia-like super-organism to know that you are being influenced in ways that may surprise you.

As Christakis and Fowler say in Connected, think of a cake.

The final concoction tastes different than any of the individual ingredients. Sprinkle in the new social media, on top of the social networks from our evolutionary past, and who knows what will rise up.