Stay Connected.

I feel like I was tricked into getting on Facebook, or maybe just pressured. One day I got an email that said a co-worker had signed up for Facebook and thought I’d be interested in it too. And I ignored it. Then about twenty more emails came in, all of them from people I work with, and I heard someone say we were going to start using Facebook as a way to share work-related information. I thought, well, if it’s work-related I’d better sign up for it. And I’ve never regretted it. While it’s never really been used for anything related to work, it has given me a chance to learn things about some people I’ve worked with for over a decade without really knowing anything about them personally. This is actually useful because, in a few months, about twenty people who are currently in another building are going to be moving into the office where I work. Technically we’re all in the same department but for as long as I’ve worked here we’ve been split into two buildings, so for the first time in almost twenty years we’ll be sharing the same space. Facebook has given me a chance to learn a little about some of them as people, and even to chat casually–albeit virtually.

And on the personal front it’s given me a chance to reconnect with people I’d lost touch with but never forgotten–old friends I thought I’d never hear from again. In spite of being a writerly kind of guy I’m a terrible correspondent, but Facebook does allow me to stay in touch with, or at least keep up with, old friends. Sometimes too I’m surprised by who’s looking. My life ain’t that exciting, but I get a kick out of putting song lyrics in the What’s on your mind? section. Usually they’re whatever I’ve been listening to on the way to work–anything from The Kinks to They Might Be Giants. Except I don’t say, “Here’s a song lyric.” I’ll just stick something in there as though it’s my own profound thought. Once I put up a couple of lines from Justin Bond’s In The End and got one phone call and a flurry of emails from people concerned about my well-being. I pick my lyrics a little more carefully now.

It’s not surprising that there’s now at least one academic study of social networking sites, and Laura Vanderkam’s review of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives is an interesting look at this new book by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler. According to the book, Vanderkam says, networks transmit “information, germs, and habits between people who are nearly as tangentially linked as actors in the old parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” The people we associate with can affect everything from our happiness to our weight. Our behaviors radiate outward.

Being connected to a happy person, for instance, makes you 15 percent more likely to be happy yourself…It radiates out for three degrees of separation, so that, say, your sister’s best friend’s husband’s mood exerts a greater influence on your personal happiness than an extra $10,000 in income would. If he gains 50 pounds, it will be that much harder for you to stay slim, as the frame of reference for what’s “normal” changes through your network. Or, on the positive side, if he quits smoking, your chances of kicking the habit improve, too, even if you’ve never met him.

I’ve emphasized that last part because it’s a profound thought: people we’ve never met, people we may never have spoken to, maybe even people whose names we don’t even know have an impact on our lives in ways we don’t recognize. And yet, as Vanderkam notes, this is not a “how to be happy” manual. They’re not advocating behavioral changes or expanding one’s sphere of friends, since being well-connected “is better if you want to find a job, but being on the outside is more advantageous in the midst of a swine flu epidemic.” She also faults the authors because they “raise, but then mostly avoid answering, some profound questions”. A book like this, of course, is about studying the data, not grappling with the philosophical issues, each of which could fill several books.

Reading this review made me think even more deeply about the impact a few simple song lyrics or even a joke can have on the people around me. One of the implications of Connected is that we may not be as in control of our behavior as we think–which makes it harder to control our behavior. I hope that knowing this, though, will make me more conscious of my behavior and be a positive influence.