By Blake Baxter
Is Your Social Network Calling The Shots?

Should I dump old friends to make room for rich friends?

Startup Grind San Diego enjoyed a wonderful evening with James Fowler this past Wednesday. The night was kicked off with a power hour of pizza and networking, followed up with a fireside chat about the influence our real life social networks have on us. And if anybody has the experience and credibility to speak on social networks it’s Fowler. He recently published a book on the subject titled Connected: How Our Friends’, Friends’, Friends Affect Everything You Think, Feel And Do. In addition he is currently performing top-secret research with Facebook which cannot yet be disclosed.

As you can probably imagine, when Fowler tells people he studies social networks many of them ask him if he can help them with their Facebook privacy settings. After a good laugh he then has to take a minute to explain the types of networks he mostly deals with: real, live people. The central motif of the fireside chat and the premise of his book are rooted in this idea that our live social networks have a lot more influence over us than we could have ever imagined. He drove his point home with fascinating questions and research, for example: What causes people to vote during elections? Why do widows die so soon? Are smoking and obesity actually epidemics? If I surround myself with rich friends will I become rich?

Though the subject matter and studies were unique to each of these scenarios one thing remained constant: the more a behavior, event, or attribute presents itself within your own personal social network, the more likely you are to adopt that behavior, engage in that event, or take on that attribute. It makes sense. If nobody in your group of friends is divorced then it is not very socially acceptable to you (either consciously or subconsciously), and the likelihood of you getting divorced is lower. Whereas if you have many friends that are divorced, their influence somehow makes it more socially acceptable and next thing you know you may be considering it as an option.

Some of the numbers from these studies are almost incredible. In one example, they found through a number of studies that you are 40% more likely to be obese if one of your friends is obese. You are 20% more likely if one of your friends’ friends is obese and 10% more likely if one of your friends’ friends’ friends is obese. In this Fowler pointed out 3 degrees of separation which appear to be a constant across his studies. (That is our influence generally tends to penetrate three networks deep). In another example they found that a charitable act performed by one subject would usually influence other charitable acts up to 3 degrees away from its origin. Fowler grinned as he admitted some of these “generosity games” and studies they performed were all about spreading love and the contagiousness of smiles.

One elementary school teacher in attendance asked Fowler what she could do infuse her classroom and the school environment with more positivity and happiness. Fowler’s answer? Simple. First, people need to start realizing that every action they take is not only affecting them, but hundreds of other individuals in their networks and the networks of their friends and even people they don’t know. Too many times people don’t realize the power they have and the long reaching effects of a decision. Second, the more visible kindness and good behavior becomes the more it will spread because it is truly contagious.

Ok, so spreading sunshine is really cute and all, but what about the question all of us startups and founders have: will surrounding myself with successful people make me successful? Fowler’s research and theories would argue yes, there is definitely a greater likelihood of an individual being successful if there are other successful individuals in that person’s network. Fowler realizes at this point many people are thinking to themselves that it’s time they dump their friends that are obese out of fear of becoming obese, or their friends that are poor out of fear of not attaining a level of success they want. However this has been proven to be unwise and harmful. To the contrary, each additional close social connection you establish has been proven to benefit individual happiness, productivity, and accomplishment.

And with that let me conclude by saying Startup Grind looks forward to building more and more close relationships with all of you – the founders, entrepreneurs, and bright minds of San Diego. We hope to see you all at our next event on September 19!

(For more specifics on these studies, social networks, and Fowler’s research check out his book Connected)