Monthly Archives: January 2009

Our genes influence our social networks

Chromosomes magnified - photo by BlueSunFlower

Chromosomes magnified - photo by BlueSunFlower

If you don’t have enough friends or aren’t the social butterfly of your class, now you can blame your genes.

Nick Christakis (Harvard Medical School) and James Fowler (UCSD political scientist) are back with more controversial findings suggesting some genetic determination in our social networks (both in forming friendships and determining where we are in social networks).  Christakis: “the beautiful and complicated pattern of human connection depends on our genes to a significant measure.”  Previous work by Christakis looked at how our social networks and who is in them shape our likelihood of obesity, happiness, and smoking, among other outcomes.

They researched 1,100 same-sex twins in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (colloquially called “Add Health”). Add Health examined high school students in 1994-1995 and asked questions regarding economics, physical health and social involvement. Christakis and Fowler compared the social networks and patterns of identical same-sex twins against fraternal ones to separate nature (genes) from nurture (upbringing).

Their findings go far beyond what people might think about the genetic influence on personality traits (being outgoing, shy, etc.). For example, how often the subject was named as a friend and the likelihood that the subject’s friends knew one another were strongly genetically influenced, but interestingly not the number of friends that the subject listed. This suggests a genetic determinant of being popular (beyond a simple disposition toward being outgoing); further buttressing this interpretation, whether the subject was more the center of attention (central to these networks) or more of a social outcast (peripheral to these networks) was also heritable.

Christakis admits that some of the findings are puzzling, like the fact that the likelihood that my friends Bill and John know each other is attributable to my genes; what this likely means is that some people are genetically disposed to introduce their friends to each other more or to host or arrange social events where these friends would have chances to meet each other.

‘Given that social networks play important roles in determining a wide variety of things ranging from employment and wages to the spread of disease, it is important to understand why networks exhibit the patterns that they do,’  Matthew Jackson, a Stanford University economist, wrote in a commentary accompanying the study called “Do We Inherit Our Positions in Life?”.

James Fowler… said its implications go beyond the theoretical. For some time, scientists have suspected a genetic role in certain conditions, such as obesity. Now, Mr. Fowler wants to investigate whether the dynamics of social networks might affect public-health outcomes, for instance, by exposing people to certain behaviors, such as smoking.”

“Our work shows how humans, like ants, may assemble themselves into a ‘super-organism’ with rules governing the assembly, rules that we carry with us deep in our genes,” says Nicholas Christakis.  Christakis et al. also believe that there may be an evolutionary explanation for their findings since one’s position in social networks had costs or benefits to the survival of one’s genes. Being central to a group likely contributed to survival during periods of food scarcity since one could learn where food supplies were, while being peripheral to groups helped genes survive in periods where deadly germs were being transmitted by social contact. Christakis: “It may be that natural selection is acting on not just things like whether or not we can resist the common cold, but also who it is that we are going to come into contact with.”  The paper notes: “There may be many reasons for genetic variation in the ability to attract or the desire to introduce friends.  More friends may mean greater social support in some settings or greater conflict in others.  Having denser social connections may improve groupsolidarity, but it might also insulate a group from beneficial influence or information from individuals outside the group.”  The authors note that more work is required to understand what specific genes are at work and what possible mediating mechanisms might be.

The authors acknowledge some controversy in studies comparing identical twin studies to fraternal twins, with critics noting that identical twins may have a stronger affiliation with  each other that causes them to be more influenced by each other than fraternal twins.  The authors note that twin studies have been validated by comparing identical twins raised apart versus together (suggesting that it is not the shared environment).  The authors further note that personality and cognitive differences between identical and fraternal twins persist even among twins mistakenly believed to be identical by their parents (indicating that parental patterns in raising these ‘identical twins’ can’t explain the outcome).  Finally, they note that that once twins reach adulthood, identical twins living apart tend to become more similar with age, which doesn’t fit with a notion of the importance of their shared environment.

The study appeared online in James Fowler, Christopher Dawes and Nicholas Christakis,  “Model of Genetic Variation in Human Social Networks” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal (January 26, 2009).

“More specifically, the results show that genetic factors account for 46% [95% confidence interval 23%, 69%] of the variation in in-degree (how many times a person is named as a friend), but heritability of out-degree (how many friends a person names) is not significant (22%, CI 0%, 47%). In addition, node transitivity [the likelihood that two of a person's contacts are connected to each other] is significantly heritable, with 47% (CI 13%, 65%) of the variation explained by differences in genes. We also find that genetic variation contributes to variation in other network characteristics; for example, bertween-ness centrality [the fraction of paths through the networks that pass through a given node] is significantly heritable (29%, CI 5%, 39%).”

See also “Genes and the Friends You Make” (Wall Street Journal, 1/27/09 by Philip Shishkin)

See other articles by Christakis et. al on social networks.

Stepped-on toes, sleaze and miscues in the GPS social dance

(avatar photo of Second Life by Sisi Soderstrom)

(avatar photo of Second Life by Sisi Soderstrom)

Mathew Honan, WIRED editor, decided to try publicizing his every movement through GPS as a social guinea pig for a few weeks to see how it altered his life, his ability to find good restaurants or friends, using the latest locational software.  It’s a “good, bad and sleazy” tale of some breakthroughs but also many missed connections and awkward social implications.

“Thanks to the iPhone 3G and, to a lesser extent, Google’s Android phone, millions of people are now walking around with a gizmo in their pocket that not only knows where they are but also plugs into the Internet to share that info, merge it with online databases, and find out what—and who—is in the immediate vicinity.”

He first tried WhosThere (the iPhone application).  Curious what it was used for Honan e-mailed those around him, and one woman (Bridget),  “who, according to her profile, at least, was a 25 year-old woman with a proclivity for scarves,”  responded ” ‘To find sex, a@#hole.’ “

Honan notes that some warn that GPS threatens to violate your privacy. “Geo-enthusiasts will assure you that these privacy concerns are overplayed: Your cell phone can be used to pinpoint your location anyway, and a skilled hacker could likely get that data from your mobile carrier. Heck, in the UK, tracking mobile phone users is as simple as entering their number on a Web site (as long as they give permission). But the truth is, there just aren’t that many people who want to prey on your location. Still, I can’t help being a little skittish when I start broadcasting my current position and travel plans. I mean, I used to stop newspaper delivery so people wouldn’t realize I was out of town. Now I’ve told everyone on Dopplr that I’m going to DC for five days.”

Honan also notes how locational  information can jump platforms with unexpected results.  He explains how he forgot that the social application Whrrl (like many other social apps), cross posts to Twitter which then prompted postings on Facebook  and FriendFeed before landing on Honan’s blog, where Google indexed it.  He notes that one seemingly innocuous iPhone application  led to a “giant geotagged footprint across the Web.”

“A few days later I had another disturbing realization. It’s a Tuesday and I’m blowing off a work meeting in favor of a bike ride through Golden Gate Park (37.771558 °N, 122.454478 °W). Suddenly it hits me—since I would later post my route online with the date and time, I would be just a Google search (“Mat Honan Tuesday noon”) away from getting busted. I’m a freelancer, and these are trying economic times. I can’t afford to have the Internet ratting me out like that.”  Honan notes that Fire Eagle, a location clearinghouse started by Tom Coates, lets you input that information once and have it broadcast to other geoapps, such as  Outside.in and Bizroof but Fire Eagle also lets you decide how specific to be for each application: you can provide the latitude and longitude, the neighborhood or only the city.  “[A]s Coates also notes:  ‘You have to have the ability to lie about your location.’”  if you input your fake position manually.”  Of  course being more general about your location or lying about it, defeats the purpose of finding friends who are proximate or other points of interest near you.

“I was starting to revel in the benefits of location awareness. …While working downtown one day, it looked like I was going to have to endure a lonely burrito lunch by myself. So I updated my location and asked for company. My friend Mike saw my post on Twitter and dropped by on his way to the office. Later, I met up with a couple of people I had previously known only online: After learning I would be just around the corner from their office, we agreed to get together for coffee. One of them, it turns out, works in a field I cover and gave me a tip on a story.

But then, two weeks into the experiment, I bumped into my friend Mindy at the Dovre Club (37.749008 °N, 122.420547 °W). She mentioned my constant updates, which she’d noticed on Facebook. “It seems sort of odd,” she said with a note of concern. “I’ve been a little worried about you. I thought, ‘Wow, Mat must be really lonely.’”

I explained that I wasn’t actually begging for company; I was just telling people where I was. But it’s an understandable misperception. This is new territory, and there’s no established etiquette or protocol.

This issue came up again while having dinner with a friend at Greens (37.806679 °N, 122.432131 °W), an upscale vegetarian restaurant. Of course, I thought nothing of broadcasting my location. But moments after we were seated, two other friends—Randy and Cameron—showed up, obviously expecting to join us. Randy squatted at the end of the table. Cameron stood. After a while, it became apparent that no more chairs would be coming, so they left awkwardly. I felt bad, but I hadn’t really invited them. Or had I?…

There were also missed connections—lots of missed connections. Apple doesn’t let applications from outside software makers run in the background on the iPhone…. As a result, iPhone location apps can’t send out constant updates….[So] people are often showing up where you were, rather than where you are. On a Friday afternoon, for example, I posted an update looking for nearby friends to share a postwork beer downtown (37.787229 °N, 122.387093 °W). A short time later, I heard back from my friend Lisey, who wanted to meet up. But I had already moved on to Zeitgeist (37.770088 °N, 122.422194 °W), a beer garden in San Francisco’s Mission District. I again updated my location. But the place was packed, so I decided to split and headed to Toronado (37.771920 °N, 122.431213 °W), a bar closer to home. Just after I left, I heard from Lisey again, who was now on her way to the Mission. I had accidentally dodged her twice. I later discovered that two more pals had shown up at Zeitgeist looking for me.”

And Honan’s article doesn’t deal with the social discomfort of other ‘friends’ learning you are nearby and joining you for drinks or a meal when these are people that you don’t really want to hang out with.  For more on the awkwardness of excluding people from your social networks online, see “Anxious about non-friends inviting you to be their Facebook ‘friend’? You’re not alone” or “Amassing Friends: Collect the Whole Set.”

Honan’s article also raises the interesting question of how we change social norms around open-ness to meeting with people.  If Americans have far fewer friends on average than a generation ago, can we start to change that without people worrying about the stigma of appearing socially desperate, trolling for friends by posting their GPS and encouraging people to join them for a beer or lunch.

See the WIRED article:  “I Am Here: One Man’s Experiment With the Location-Aware Lifestyle” by Matt Honan.

Turning the Mall into a community

obamanametagI heard about the great joint effort of MeetUp.com and the Huffington Post to distribute 500,000 name tags yesterday at the Inauguration in an effort to get the 1.8 million attendees to meet each other.  The name tags read “Hello my fellow American, my name is…”  Attendees were asked to write their name and where they were from, so other attendees could say, “Oh, you’re from Chicago, do know my cousin Harold.”

MeetUp founder Scott Heiferman and  Jeremy Heimans noted that: “We want to turn a crowd into a community. We all need a little reminder that we’re not just spectators and that Inauguration isn’t just for celebrities. We can look at each other, and not just at the Jumbotrons. As Obama says, “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.”


Waiting to hear from some of those at the Inauguration whether it really worked.  Look forward to any comments from attendees.

Apparently the back of name tag had a 4-point guide on how to strike up a conversation.  We assume it was more sophisticated than “Come Here Often?”

This may be the closest we’ve come yet to Joseph Porcelli’s vision of “National Name Tag Day.”

See also Nancy Sciola’s post on this for TechPresident.

What is your pledge for America?

I was moved by Barack Obama’s invocation of the social progress we have made in a lifetime — as he put it, “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

Obama’s inauguration speech also called upon Americans to return to the inspirational examples of our forebears acting in service to others (to their friends, their communities, the generations to follow):

“As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment – a moment that will define a generation – it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.

What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”

Husband and wife Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher called on their Hollywood friends to pledge what THEY were doing or planning on doing to make the world better and ask you to do the same.  Is this the same Ashton Kutcher of Punk’d fame, or did he have a conversion experience?  It’s a moving video nonetheless and let’s hear it for second lives. [You can also play ‘name that celebrity….’

Heroes and Cowards

heroes-and-cowardsMatt Kahn and Dora Costa have just recently published Heroes and Cowards : The Social Face of War. I haven’t read the book, but I have read the terrific underlying articles that formed the genesis of this book.

One of them was a fascinating look at why more soldiers didn’t desert their companies in the Civil War than the 200,000 who did — after all there was almost a 50% chance that they would die or be seriously wounded if they stayed with their troop and a negligible chance they would be caught and punished if they deserted.

See this excerpt from Chapter 1:

James Monroe Rich left his wife and his trade for the low and irregular pay of a Union army soldier in the Civil War. He marched through heat and dust, through torrential thunderstorms and deep mud. He marched with gear weighing 45 to 50 pounds—guns, cartridges and cartridges boxes, woolen and rubber blankets, two shirts and two pairs of drawers, canteens full of water, rations, and trinkets from home. He marched with his comrades even when they “were falling on every side” in a failed frontal assault where “the lead and iron filled the air as the snowflakes in an angry driving storm. James was lucky. He survived the war. Over one-quarter of the men in his company did not.

Unlike James, George Farrell was well paid to enlist and take the place of another man who had been called up. He joined a company that had been re-formed with new men and saw no comrades die. Unlike James, he deserted twice, the second time successfully. Why did James stand up for his comrades while George did not?

While their story is told through the eyes of 9 men serving in the Civil War, Costa and Kahn do extensive statistical analyses and controls to verify their conclusions.  Digitally tracking the involvement of 41,000 soldiers from 1861-1865, Costa and Kahn found that “social capital” (the degree of connections they had with others in their troop — e.g., profession, age, hometown, extended blood ties) that predicted troop cohesion. For example, Union soldiers who served alongside men from the same occupations deserted at one-third the rate of counterparts in more diverse companies (where 1 in 10 deserted).

Costa and Kahn quote military strategist Ardant du Picq: “Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare to attack a lion. Four less brave, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will attack resolutely.”

They also found that survival rates in Andersonville — a despicable Confederate war camp where nearly 40%  of captured soldiers died– was significantly higher if one had close ethnic ties to other prisoners.  Survival rates for Union soldiers born in Ireland, increased dramatically from 60% to 90% if there were 15 other Irish immigrant prisoners but only edged up to 64% if there were 15 other comrades from their original company.  Kahn hypothesizes that “[Y]our comrades would help you get healthy if you got sick and share their food rations… “So in P.O.W. camps, diversity actually turned out to be a bad thing. It hindered survival rates.”

But Costa & Kahn found long-term benefits from diversity of African-Americans in Civil War companies: increased literacy; increased changing of their slave name after service; and increased moving away from their hometown after the War.  Companies with both African American former slaves and freemen had higher desertion rates than units that didn’t mix these groups, but over 30% of former slaves learned to write in these mixed groups versus only 16% in former slave-only units.  Kahn calls them quasi-job-training programs. “[F]or every 10 percentage-point increase in comrades who hailed from a particular state different than the home state of an illiterate solider, the likelihood of that illiterate soldier ultimately relocating to that state jumped by more than 30 percent. ”  Kahn calls this “the Zagat Guide effect…So if we’re in the same company, and I’m from New Jersey, you are more likely to move to New Jersey after the war. We believe that I taught you about the benefits of New Jersey. Serving in a diverse unit helped open horizons for men who had previously enjoyed no mobility whatsoever.”

We’ve long preached about the importance of social capital, but Costa & Kahn show how these social ties help not only in a daily “business as usual” climate but in times of greatest adversity where our lives are on the line. They show where notions of altruism, group identity, and willingness to sacrifice come from, and how they are informed by those around us.  And how we act on our loyalty toward others, even when it holds great cost to us, by increasing the chance that we “go down with the ship.”

To see a WSJ review of Heroes and Cowards, see “Why Soldiers Fight“.

Read Chapter 1 of Heroes and Cowards here.

Watering the Obama grassroots post-election

(photo by MacaStat)

(photo by MacaStat)

The 2008 election really succeeded in engaging new voices into the political process.  Especially Obama (see below), but also Palin’s appeal to white men (some based more on Palin’s looks than her policies), has drew new voices in American politics.

Obama, who has a background in community organizing,  hired some of the best community organizers in the country to build an unparalleled grassroots organization in his presidential quest.    He gave campaign volunteers responsibility and access to crown jewels (like voting lists) when candidates traditionally centralize power much more.  And Obama combined high-tech and high-touch.

As Newsweek’s Howard Fineman reports: “The resulting bottom line is astounding: 3.1 million contributors, 5 million volunteers, 2.2 million supporters on his main Facebook page, 800,000 on his MySpace page and perhaps a million more names on Obama’s own campaign Web site. Even discounting for likely duplicates, Plouffe says he could end up “knowing” almost 7 million voters by Election Day—roughly one in 10 of Obama’s likely total. “These are people who are responsive,” he says. “They want to be respected and to continue to be involved in what we do.”

Now that Obama is elected, how will the Obama administration rate in the care and feeding of this tremendous network?  At our Saguaro conversations back in the late 1990s (in which Barack participated), it became clear that politicians have much more of a natural interest in stoking grassroots networks before elections and tend to neglect them after election victories, when it is often less clear both how to use these networks and “what’s in it for them–the politicians?”

The Deval Patrick Administration shows the potential dangers here.  Patrick, a very bright, young African-American Harvard Law graduate was elected Governor of Massachusetts in 2006, also thanks to the brilliant campaigning of David Axelrod (the campaign strategist for Obama) in a campaign that had stronger grassroots civic engagement than any election Massachusetts had seen for decades. While Patrick announced that civic engagement was going to be one of the three pillars of his administration, his rhetoric has been stronger than his strategy in this regard.  While it is not clear that his grassroots supporters have turned on him, they certainly are far less moored to his Administration than pre-election.

As Fineman notes: “…[I]f you live by viral marketing, you can die by it, too. ‘His supporters have sky-high expectations and expect to be involved,’ says Will Marshall, who studied the Obama organization for the Democratic Leadership Council. ‘They are loyal but not easy to control.’ ”  Fineman observes that this grassroots network could turn against Obama if he puts far more troops in Afghanistan.

But if Obama’s strategists adequately focus on how to best engage these volunteers, and one would hope and trust that his experience in the Saguaro Seminar helped deepen his commitment and his knowledge about civic engagement, this enormous grassroots base could be a galvanizing force against so many of the woes that face us (our economy, our high school dropout epidemic, our need to take action against global warming, our need to mentor those falling through the cracks, etc.).  Especially at a time of great economic need, when government’s purse strings may be limited by the economic bailout, unleashing a civic army of volunteers against our woes could be a doubly willing strategy.

As Marshall notes”If [Obama] wins, he’s going to have a personal following he can use to press his agenda,” says Marshall. “He can use these millions to reach over the heads of the Washington insiders, the Democrats on the Hill. It could be powerful.”

See “What Have We Created: Obama’s supporters have high expectations, and they may expect to have a voice in governing?”

See also A Civic Inflection Point in the U.S.?