You To Me, You To Them - More About Network Effects

Not that we have to be reminded, but COVID has certainly reminded us of the fact that we are all connected, in varying degrees, and have an impact on each other.  This reminder from a pandemic shouldn’t be a surprise since some of the earliest and best work on real network effects between people has been done by public health experts.

The now classic 2009 book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler showed the ways that our networks with other people affect, among other things, our emotions, political views, wealth, and health (even body weight).  Given that one of the most important origins of the study of human networks was in public health, it won’t be surprising that Christakis, who specialized in public health, was particularly interested in the long-running Framingham study of health.

For the rest of us, who are not in public health, it would seem that viral pictures and memes on the net form our understanding of network effects.  But there is much more to these connections than simply passing images and memes to one another – even much more than passing diseases to each other.

There have been, at least, three relatively recent books that help describe in more useful and original detail the impact of each of us on each other.  The ideas in these books apply not just to health, but to the economy, business and career success as well.

Robert H. Frank is one of the most creative and insightful economists around.  His book this year, “Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work”, is a review of behavioral economics, with an emphasis on network effects.  That includes how it is not only the absolute value of goods and wealth that motivate economic behavior, but our ownership of goods relative to others.  Rather than maximizing wealth, per se, many people want to maximize their relative position.  Thus, he points out that having another billion dollars is not so important to the richest man, as long as he is richer than other men.  (This has important implications for tax policy and other public policies, which he discusses the book.)

Matthew O. Jackson’s 2019 book “The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs, and Behaviors” extends the work of Christakis with explanations of network measures and phenomena in the economy.  Those economic phenomena include two very relevant to our times – economic inequality and economic crises (or, to put it more simply, economic bubbles that burst).  He shows how the well-known tendency of people to connect with others who are similar to themselves can generate inequality.

In an elaboration of the old adage – “it’s not what you know, but who you know” – Jackson also describes the various ways that our position in our networks influence our behavior and outcomes for us in those networks.

Of course, you may know some people very well, like family, and others not so well.  As Duncan Watts showed in his 2004 book, “Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age”, the people you don’t know so well – those with whom you have weak ties – can connect you to almost anyone else on the globe in just a few steps.

One popular application of that idea is that it is weak ties that are the key to success in finding out about job openings or getting major initiatives accomplished in a large organization.  We’ve all heard about the importance of “networking” in career success.  But, like all such popular ideas, the importance of weak ties has been applied to too many situations, some of which are inappropriate.

That is the point of Damon Centola’s 2018 book, “How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions”.  He provides a more nuanced view of the best time to use weak or strong ties.  If the goal is to quickly pass information – such as about a job opening or a cute meme – then weak ties will indeed do the best job.  However, if the goal is to change the behavior of people, something not as casual as passing along a joke, then having someone lead the change in a networks of strong ties are more effective.

This post can only provide a summary of three of the most interesting authors.  It is worth reading each of these books as well as other books and articles that have contributed to our understanding of this important, but complex, subject of human interactions.

Expect more new knowledge in the future.  After all, there is now a lot of and a growing amount of big data about human interactions that can provide a gold mine to be explored with network analytics, but more generally machine learning and AI.

A final thought … You would expect that the importance of these phenomena of social influence would be built into many models of individual human behavior and then aggregated, network style, into larger models to understand macro phenomena and trends.  Curiously, such network-informed models are few and far between – but that’s a topic for a future blog post.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved


The Internet Is Already Reinvigorating The Countryside

The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) held its annual summit last week in Columbus, Ohio.  As I’ve done in the last couple of years, I ran a workshop for small cities and rural areas.


past years, this time I didn’t only focus on the potential that the
Internet provides for the countryside, but also showed the ways that
some – but not all – of those communities are already being
reinvigorated.  This post will provide a summary of my presentation
during the first half of the workshop.

In addition to the
usual background about ICF, I let people know of the establishment of a
new ICF Institute that is specifically devoted to the study of rural
communities.  It’s based at Mississippi State University and is led by
Professor Roberto Gallardo.


I quickly outlined the reasons why
changes in technology and the economy enable small towns and rural areas
to flourish again in this century:

  • Now and in the future, size and clusters count less than connections
  • Broadband enables economic growth in the way that proximity enabled urban economic growth in the industrial era
  • An
    ever increasing percentage of people can make a living by providing
    intangible products and services that can be delivered from anywhere to
  • A life-long 9 to 5 job in a big company is being pushed aside by the freelance economy
  • Visual communication will intensify the trends — although we are still only in the early stages of its use

I noted that only some small towns and rural areas have taken advantage
of these factors.  As a result, growth is very uneven in the
countryside as reported  by the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

I reviewed the kinds of community building services that the leaders,
in contrast to the laggards, are providing on top of their broadband and
technology foundation.

That was all prelude to the main topics of the day:

  • the
    development of a new urban exodus by digital millennials from high-tech
    cities into those parts of the countryside that provide both a better
    quality of life as well as Internet connectivity
  • the need for
    residents of the countryside to participate in the global economy and
    not limit their horizons to their local areas or even just their region

The new urban exodus to the countryside is a phenomenon that is not only in

the US, but has also occurred in France and the UK.  Nor is it like the migration to exurban homes of more than a decade ago.  As a Pew study has reported:

to call these rural hot spots “exurban,” Garreau said, is missing the
point.  As he sees it, today’s urban exiles aren’t looking for a lengthy
commute from the far suburbs to a downtown office.  They’re seasoned
professionals with big incomes who’ve grown tired of the urban rat race,
he said.  They’re looking to completely eradicate the notion of
commuting to work and toiling from 9 to 5.  Rich greenery and wide-open
vistas are a must.

For a better understanding of this phenomenon, I showed a few minutes from Alissa Hessler’s very compelling video explaining what her Urban Exodus website and life is like.


I reviewed the evidence showing the greater growth path for those
participating in the global economy, even in rural areas.  However,
rural residents are at a competitive disadvantage compared to their city
cousins if they try to do this in isolation.

For that reason, I
emphasized the need for rural residents to achieve scale and influence
by working together in a kind of virtual metropolis
or global virtual
Chamber of Commerce where they can meet and, more important, find
business partners, services and even customers.  Partly, this can work
is because it is also built on the shared experience and perspective
that comes from living in the countryside.

If you or the residents
of your community are interested in joining in this virtual metropolis,
please contact me – njacknis at intelligent community dot org.


© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved