-lyrics from the song “Popular” from the musical Wicked
That song is about how it’s great to be popular, but a study released this week was all about when popularity is a decided disadvantage. Entitled Social Network Sensors for Early Detection of Contagious Outbreaks, researchers Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler of Harvard and UC San Diego demonstrated that individuals near the center of a social network are likely to be infected by contagious epidemics such as the influenza virus sooner during the course of an outbreak, on average, than those at the periphery of the social network. In other words, you may have the most friends, but they are not going to be happy to see you when the flu bug gets you first. A corollary: loneliness has its privileges.
This research was further discussed in 9/15/2010 Reuters article called, “Popularity can come at a price: getting flu first”. In the article, the study’s authors describe something they call the friendship paradox. To wit:
If a person is asked to name a friend, that friend is statistically likely to be more popular than the original individual. Furthermore, if people are asked to name a friend or two, they are more likely to choose someone who connects them to others—a true social butterfly. The researchers report that they pick people at random and then ask them who their friends are; those friends become the focus of the study. Focusing their study of social networking on 744 Harvard students during the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic, they found that the uber- friends, as I dub them, got the flu about two weeks earlier than the other groups.
Remember that old Faberge shampoo commercial: …and she told two friends, and so on and so on? By the time you get to your third round of “so on’s,” Miss Popularity at the front of the line is laying in bed red-nosed, wearing a Snuggie and looking decidedly unwell.
In the article the researchers discuss how they could maximize the effectiveness of a service like Google Flu Trends (which works on the premise that when people feel ill, they look up terms such as “fever” and by watching when and where these search terms cluster, health officials should be able to infer where the flu is first taking hold). If you could identify the uber-friends on say, Facebook, and convince them to let you track their web moves, you might be able to improve the functioning of such a service and help the Centers for Disease Control get a jump on flu season. Pretty creepy, but intriguing.
At last look, Lady Gaga had the record for most friends on Facebook at over 10 million. If I were her I’d stock up on Kleenex.