“A fascinating read” – Connected: The Amazing Power of Social Networks and How they Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler

At first, Connected appealed to me because, if I’m honest, I have become a bit obsessed with social networking. Scarily, Facebook is the first thing that comes up when I click ‘www.’, and it has provided me with a valuable way to waste time procrastinating when I really should be working. However, Connected concerns itself more with the way that we interact in the real world, and how such interactions can have a monumental effect on both our physical and mental health.

Often, works of science become shrouded in rhetoric that makes them incomprehensible to the general reader, or alternatively science becomes diluted for the sake of newspaper headlines. Connected provides a refreshing alternative, that is neither full or jargon nor overly simplistic. Written by a doctor and an academic, its mixture of anecdotal evidence and published research means that the claims it makes are credible, but at the same time can be understood in their real world contexts. Whilst there is at points a sense of stating the obvious (for example, I’m not sure I need scientific research to tell me that I’m most likely to marry someone who’s been introduced by a mutual friend), it is helpful that the research is put into a context that most people can relate to, and interesting that many of the well spun clichés that resonate in our culture, like ‘six degrees of separation’, can be backed up with actual hard data.

However, most interesting are the chapters concerned with scientific studies or historical events – things that go beyond the science of finding your spouse. Especially notable is the book’s description of MPI – mass psychogenic illness, or epidemic mass hysteria. MPI is a phenomenon whereby a community of people can suddenly find themselves afflicted by physical symptoms (examples in the book include mass laughing fits, smelling gas and temporary paralysis). These symptoms often have no physiological basis, and yet can spread through communities as a type of ‘emotional contagion’. Whilst MPI seems far fetched, Christakis and Fowler are able to point to no fewer than four cases in the past century, showing that the way that others feels really can affect out physical and mental health.

All of this is explained using the science of networks – looking at the way we interact with others, and how these interactions are vital to our functioning in the world. These networks can be small or massive; however, usually at the core is around six people that can be considered ‘proper’ friends who you would trust secrets with. Furthermore, the book suggests that in cyberspace things aren’t much different, and that many of the 300 Facebook friends or twitter followers you might could be rather superfluous  Whilst the book suggests that the online world can lead to new opportunities and innovations (the use of the web in Obama’s presidential campaign is a case in point), ultimately networks work in much the same way. Although I’ve yet to find anything as pointlessly distracting as Facebook in the offline world.

Any Cop?: Fundamentally, Connected is a book about people, how we talk to each other and influence each other in trivial and monumental ways. A fascinating read that will confirm some things that you already knew, whilst informing you of things you don’t know in a way that is clear, yet casual enough to be understood by those of us who haven’t touched a science text book in a good few years.

Claire Sedgwick

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