In this age of pervasive social media, the significance of online relationships and their effect on real-world connections (and the real world itself) has been the subject of much debate and speculation.
UC San Diego's Division of Social Sciences is at the forefront of research into this modern phenomenon, studying social networks and social media and their relationships to issues that impact our society.
UC San Diego professor James Fowler and his collaborator Nicholas A. Christakis, then at Harvard, first pushed the issue into the spotlight in 2007 when they published a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine on social networks and obesity, prompting front-page headlines around the world like "Are Your Friends Making You Fat?"
In 2009, they published the best-selling book "Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives," which discussed the social contagiousness of ideas, emotions, health, relationships, behavior, politics and more. The book sparked much discussion, in traditional media outlets and online, landing Fowler on the talk show circuit.
Fowler first became interested in the dynamics of social networks as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. "I was perplexed when I saw two nearly identical villages behave so differently when I tried to help them build water systems," he said.
"One village was very functional, self-organizing and hardly needing any help at all. They built a new water system and it was beautiful. The other was extremely dysfunctional and it was like hitting my head against a brick wall to get anything to happen."
Fowler set out to find the cause for such radically different group dynamics by using 21st Century methodology. Returning to the U.S. and resuming his academic career, he began to study social networks and how they influence the motivations and behavior of the people connected, seeking answers for questions such as: Do tightly knit communities function more efficiently than communities with many separate groups? Are people with more friends more influential?
"These questions can be studied scientifically — just like we study nature — by comparing lots of different people and their networks," said Fowler, professor of medical genetics and political science at UC San Diego.
Using data gleaned from his social-network research, Fowler found that online friends can indeed be motivators, and their influence can increase the likelihood that important information spreads and behavior changes. For example, a report he co-authored for the journal Nature showed that a single "get out the vote" message on Facebook caused 60,000 people to vote in the 2010 congressional election.
"We showed with our voter study that a message can be used not just to change the person who receives it but their friends as well," Fowler said.
His research also shows that social-network friends can be keen sensors, opening an immediate peek into the future: "Monitoring them gives us early detection of anything that is spreading through the population."
Although social media can't replace in-person relationships, Fowler believes that its power to bring people in closer contact with strangers and spread information quickly can create important new group-level efforts like crowd-sourcing (think: Wikipedia or Kickstarter) and large-scale coordination (think: flash mobs or Arab Spring protests).
"Facebook is a powerful tool, but that's because, at its core, it connects real friends," Fowler said.