The Viral Influence of Social Networks

This article, The Buddy System: How Medical Data Revealed Secret to Health and Happiness, was published in Wired magazine in September 2009. Two researchers began to pour over decades of health information found about the population of Framingham, MA. The study began in 1948 and has tracked the subjects’ weight for decades. A decision by the original researchers to record the names of the family and friends of each subject, done only to help track down subjects if they moved, proved to provide a wealth of information about human relationships and social networks. An amazing two-thirds of the 1948 population participated in the study, and now their children and grandchildren have as well. What they found was astonishing.

A segment of a social network

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In 1948 fewer than 10% of the residents were obese, increasing to 18% by 1985 and to a staggering 40% today. In effect, obesity worked in a viral fashion to change the social norm for many residents. Research revealed that having an obese spouse raised the risk of becoming obese by 37%, and if a friend became obese the risk increased by 171%! Perhaps most interestingly, different groups of people began clumping together; rarely was a lean person tied closely to a social network of obese people. Social networks and friend groups became segregated based on weight. Even space did not stop the viral spread of obesity; friends who moved hundreds of miles away from Framingham still had an impact on behavior.

Think of it this way: Even if you see a friend only once a year, that friend will still change your sense of what’s appropriate. And that new norm will influence what you do.” – - James Fowler

The influence of social networks does not stop at obesity; smoking, happiness and nearly any human behavior can be affected. In Framingham in 1971 smokers were evenly distributed throughout the social network and 65% of residents between 40 and 49 smoked regularly. By 2001, only 22% still smoked and the remaining smokers were more socially isolated than non-smokers. If a person quit smoking, their friend was 36% more likely to quit as well. Each happy friend, according to the article, can increase happiness by 9%. A $5,000 dollar raise raised happiness by only 2%. This phenomena has also, logically, carried over to social media. Studies on Facebook have shown similar trends of similar behavior.

Translation to Architecture and the Built Environment

Our unique American urban and suburban landscape can be attributed to many things; can social networks be one of them? For millions of people, living in a suburban neighborhood in a house that is remarkably similar to all the others is common. It seems possible that this is related to our desire to fit in with those we are around. We are all familiar with the colloquialism of “keeping up with the Joneses”, but unfortunately we picked odd examples of people to keep up with, valuing status symbols like cars and jewelry more than a good place to dwell. Although there is something there. Status is terribly important to our social lives and to our ability to have a leg up in intrasexual competition and increase our reproductive success. Perhaps as cars and jewelry can be shown and seen at great distances from our homes, our ability to advertise our status with those devices is elevated.

Maybe there are more benefits too. Those with a lower status, or those deviant parts of the population can hide behind the edifice of the

But what about from another perspective? A new arrival in an old neighborhood, first week there he tears the whole place to the ground to start over. He builds something new, something different. One can imagine he will be less than warmly received, but why? Others in the neighborhood may fear home values falling, decreasing their monetary value and their status along with it. Or perhaps by removing the one symbol that made him similar to his neighbors, he has exposed himself to be socially different as well, not quite “their type”. His social status may suffer before he even gets a chance to establish it. Imagine transplanting a house from the Haight District to a quiet neighborhood in God-fearing Colorado Springs. What was successful and accepted if San Francisco does not work there. The clash of disparate architecture provides a visual for the clash of social groups and norms behind the architecture.

One can imagine how these social viruses can influence zoning decisions, transportation decisions, infrastructure decisions, and on and on. Unique social groups and networks produce unique interactions and responses in the built environment.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but I am sure there is far more there…

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