Question: Are the effects of social networks changing or
accelerating in the digital age?
Nicholas Christakis: I
don’t think so, and I’ll give you the example that I usually give: The
size of a military company in the Roman Army was about 100 men.
Centurion, right, led 10 groups of 10 men. They were Decurions that
reported to him. Each one led a squad of 10 men and there was a company
of 100 men. It's the Roman Army. In the modern American Army it’s the
same, 120, 150 men in a company, little squads of 10 men. Well now why
is that? I mean we have invented huge advances in communication. We have
telegraphy and telephony and radar and radio communication and the
Internet... and yet the size of a working unit in the military is the
same as it was. We’ve grown in our ability to communicate with each
other by many orders of magnitude and yet the company size hasn’t
changed. And the reason is that what limits the ability of human beings
to interact with each other, or what permits it even, is not the
communication technology, but the fundamental capacity of the human
brain to form social interactions and to process social information. So I
would argue that actually online networks and modern telecommunications
don’t fundamentally modify the capacity of the human brain for social
relationships and therefore, while they might affect the efficiency of
information transmission and might have other sort of affects at the
margins, at the core it hasn’t changed.
And in fact, if you
think about this other example different from the Roman and modern army
example: talk to your grandparents and ask them how many best friends
they had when they were young. They’ll say they had one best friend and
two close friends. When you talk to your own kids now it’s the same. So
even though my kids might you know Sebastian and Lysandra and Lena might
you know have hundreds of Facebook friend, those really aren’t real
friends. Those are acquaintances. The core social group hasn’t
fundamentally changed despite this incredible new technology that is
available. So I guess the way I would answer your question is to say
that while it is the case that these advances in communications are
astonishing I don’t think they change our fundamental humanity. I don’t
think they change our desire to interact with others or our ability to
interact with others, because I think those desires and abilities are
dictated more by our brain and our humanity, which hasn’t changed even
as the technology has.
Question: Do Web media increase
the efficiency of information transfer?
Christakis: No, I don’t think so. I mean think about Twitter. Like, I
mean I don’t know how many Twitter followers you have, but you know if
they’re all tweeting three or four times a day and you have a thousand
followers you’re getting 3,000 tweets. You are not reading those tweets.
They’re not affecting you. And in fact, when we looked at like when we
looked at some of our Facebook networks we looked at the spread of or
the diffusion of tastes in books, movies and music in Facebook networks.
We found that if anyone of these random acquaintances of yours
expresses a new cultural taste, it didn’t affect you. But people that
you appeared in photographs with that you tagged and posted onto your
Facebook page. What we call your "picture friends" who might be your
real friends. So on average you might have 110 Facebook friends in our
data, but you only had about six-and-a-half real friends, picture
friends, when one of your picture friends expressed a taste in a certain
movie or music or book it did affect you, for some of them.
interactions have enormous scale. You could have thousands of people
you interact with. Have tremendous specificity. You can target specific
individuals and find them in a way that was very difficult in the olden
days. They have a kind of communality, a kind of collaborative feature
that was difficult to achieve in olden days, like Wikipedia would be a
great example. And they have what we call a virtuality, so for instance,
if you’re a man you could have a female avatar. Now you could always
pass as a woman in real life too, but it’s much harder in the real life
than it is in a virtual world or you can be a disabled person with an
enabled body avatar for example, so there is a kind of way in which you
can have social interactions online, which was very difficult, if not
impossible to have face-to-face. But despite all of that fundamentally I
don’t think that these new technologies change human interaction.
Will the Web ever fundamentally reshape our social interactions?
Christakis: Well I mean ask yourself, I mean do you think that we
are different in our sociality after the invention of the telephone as
before? You know we’ve only had a telephone for a hundred years. Are we a
completely different species than the Victorians? You know, do we have
different desires? Are we… No. And now can we communicate more
efficiently, transact business and so forth? Yes. And what is also
ironic and we discuss this in the book is the ways in which when the
telephone was invented and introduced all the same kind of concerns
about you know the spread of inappropriate information or people
predating on other people or the intrusiveness of the technology. You
know the quietness of the dinner hour would be interrupted by the phone
ringing off the hook. All of those concerns were articulated just like
we talk about the Internet now. And so completely acknowledge that it’s
astonishing what the Internet offers. I just am not convinced that the
Internet fundamentally is changing how we think or how we really
interact with each other. It’s giving us additional ways of interacting,
but I don’t think it fundamentally changes friendship, romance, love,
violence, all these very deeply human traits.
Recorded March 31, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen