Posts Tagged 'twitter'

Social media: Taming the dark side

vader-stick-2

By Harry van Versendaal

About a quarter of the global population is now on Facebook, yet only a small fraction seem aware of the world-shattering implications of this reality. Facebook and other social media such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat have irreversibly transformed the landscape of human interaction to an extent that was unthinkable only a few years ago.

They have changed the way we do things.

It’s not all good. In a new book called “Look At Me!” (Iolkos, in Greek), Athens-based journalist and new media analyst Manolis Andriotakis discusses the pitfalls of our increasingly wired world: distraction, obsession, fabrication, ruthless self-promotion, addiction to the dopamine rush, dwindling attention spans (the average time spent on any web page is now down to eight seconds, so chances are that few people will read beyond this point).

Andriotakis, a tech-optimist author of a 2008 book on blogging and director of a short documentary on Twitter released in 2012, couples his warnings with pragmatic advice on how to tame the dark side of social networking and put these new tools into meaningful service.

He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the challenges of virtual living, the lessons of the recent US election, his regular digital detoxes and about how posting too many cat pictures can be bad for your career.

In a recent article for The New York Times, computer science professor and writer Cal Newport said that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media, he argued, weaken this skill because they are engineered to be addictive. Have we perhaps overestimated the role of social media in building a career?

Social media are indeed engineered to distract your attention. You need the tools, the critical ability and the skills to regulate their use so that you do not end up hostage to them. This book is about taking control. Engaging in social media is not some form of meditation; it’s not some daily habit to which you can let yourself go completely. If you allow that to happen, you can be completely sucked in. It happens to me too. Whenever I let my defenses down, I lapse into obsessive use that is very hard to escape.

Career-wise it can be a useful tool to promote your work, to enrich and distinguish your professional identity. But, again, it’s easy to lose focus and indulge in shallow self-promotion.

Is it not elitist to place an arbitrary sense of purpose on people and social media? One person may like posting cat pictures while someone else may enjoy looking at them. Is it imperative that they have a strategy?

Sure. But Newport is talking about career-building. And if you are being screened for a job, having too many cat pictures on your wall could prove bad for your career. You need to build up your defenses, yet the average user doesn’t do that. My point is: Take a step back and think. It’s the case with every new technology. You can hurt other people. You can also hurt yourself.

Are social media nurturing a new type of man? A narcissistic, distracted and hypersexual man at that? Or is this a case of old symptoms manifesting themselves through a new, potent vehicle?

Social media are certainly a new vehicle, but they can also cultivate new symptoms. We are dealing with a new technology that accelerates, empowers and stimulates. It presents us with a challenge. And the manner in which we – as individuals and as a collective – choose to deal with this challenge will determine whether social media will drag us down or help us evolve.

Why do people feel an irresistible urge to share their lives online?

There is something both sick and healthy in the need to share. The healthy part is rooted in the act of sharing, in the need to feel that you are a member of a larger community, and you want to reach out to people. People can, for example, share a health problem because it could help others prevent it.

But there is also a dark side which usually comes in the form of narcissism, self-promotion, or the urge to manipulate other people. I couldn’t say on which side the scale is weighted or whether you can always tell between good and bad.

It seems that “likes” have become a new social currency. How problematic is that?

Likes are the result of a complex psychological mechanism. The shallow, first level is certainly dominant – particularly on Instagram. However, although the volume of likes is not always a safe indicator of actual value, this is by no means exclusive to the realm of social networks. In any case, social media give you the opportunity to make sophisticated content more accessible.

Are people’s online identities the same as their regular identities?

No, you are not the same person. You construct a persona. It may even be a better version of yourself, a sexier, a sharper, more interesting self. Ultimately, the way you communicate your message, the attitude, often says more about you than the message.

Does it concern you that online interaction often eclipses face-to-face interaction?

You might as well be a hypocrite out there in the real world and an honest person in the virtual one. If you wish to construct a lie, you can do so in either world.

Facebook is accused of winning Donald Trump the US presidency by propagating fake news and helping generate the bulk of his campaign’s 250 million dollars in online fundraising. The tech-optimism of liberal pundits seems dead in the water. Are social media value-free?

Well, social media did not help democratize China, where you still rely on VPNs [internet connections that bypass the country’s firewalls and online censorship] to get round its “Great Firewall.” In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly blocked access to Facebook and Twitter. Authoritarian governments can shut down the internet or build bot armies. In fact, it looks like the bad guys can make a more effective use of social media. Trump played dirty and he won. The lesson of his campaign was that playing dirty can be very effective. It’s as if the right to play dirty has been democratized. The question is, how can you outplay these guys? It’s a machine of war.

You like to take a break from the internet about once a year. What do you gain from staying unplugged?

My digital detox, as it were, helps me protect my mental health and my relationships. It helps me refocus. The internet feeds addiction, grandiosity, narcissism. You cannot wipe these out. They exist in all of us, and they exist in me too. The break allows me to reboot and clear my head.

In your book, you raise the issue of the need for digital education. You are basically recommending a way of doing things on the internet. That could raise eyebrows among those who cherish the disorderly nature of the online world.

I am not suggesting here that everyone should conform to a common purpose. I too celebrate the fluid nature of the internet. I would hate to be in a world full of predictable people or people who were serious all the time.

What I have in mind, rather, is a more holistic approach. You need to understand that most of what you do online is build connections with other people. You are not just talking to yourself. What you say can have an impact on other people, it can hurt other people, or it can backfire. Your words are not balloons floating up into the sky.

It would be better not to sleepwalk into the internet. But this is unfortunately how most people immerse themselves in social networks. Inevitably, they fail to see both the risks as well as the opportunities.

You can find out more about Manolis Andriotakis’s at www.andriotakis.com.

Too big for his garage

By Harry van Versendaal

In a recession-wracked city where one is constantly being told that the crisis is an opportunity to be taken advantage of, it is refreshing to actually meet someone who has succeeded, with little means but plenty of drive, to create something out of nothing.

In the span of just two years, blogger Manolis Andriotakis, has published a new book, created a weekly webcast presenting fresh publications and, most recently, launched an independent online channel called GarageTV. To top it all off, Andriotakis just finished a documentary – his third – about what has been one of the most useful tools in the process: Twitter. “#Followme. Exploring Twitter,” a 33-minute film on the pioneering microblogging website, features interviews with media experts and local tweeps, and which premiered at the 15th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Speaking from a bare, soft-white lab overlooking the capital’s former entertainment mecca, Psyrri – now a scruffy, derelict neighborhood filled with empty shop fronts – Andriotakis, a cheerful, soft-spoken man in his late 30s, talks about his efforts to create a platform that will encompass all his concurrent interests and activities. “The big wager is to make all this financially sustainable. We are in the middle of a broad-scale redistribution of power with the Internet operating as a vehicle for change. I think that one of the biggest challenges that everyone, including those who still have a steady job, has to face is the need to adopt new sustainability models that do not rely on traditional channels of power,” he says during a break from a class on online video journalism that he is teaching. With Greece locked in its sixth year of recession and unemployment hovering well over 26 percent, it all makes perfect sense.

Born in downtown Athens, Andriotakis spent most of his childhood years in Kypseli, one of the capital’s densest and most congested neighborhoods. He and his wife moved to a suburb north of Athens a few years ago, mainly to find some peace and quiet. “The thing is I do need quiet,” he says. He recently published his seventh book, “I was Black and White,” a collection of sketches, texts and poems inspired by the Greek crisis. After turning his garage into a makeshift studio, he went on to launch “GarageBooks,” a weekly online program where he presented new books and interviews. More than a year and 44 shows later, “GarageBooks” is probably still the only book show out there but to his disappointment, it’s something that most local publishers do not seem to appreciate. Andriotakis, who depends on translation and video work to make a living, still needs to dig into his own pockets for most of the preview copies. He and the growing number of people behind the new channel are looking for ways to make the project sustainable without giving in to online ads and product placement.

“Sure, you need to support yourself. However, I am trying to do this without compromising my values. That is very important to me. I want to be flexible, but it is very important. It’s a more difficult path, but it is more in line with what we are going through. If it does not work, I am always willing to re-examine my options,” he says. He knows that some critics will always be waiting around the corner. But he remains optimistic, and there are already signs that it will become sustainable.

Andriotakis was still working for Eleftherotypia newspaper when he started to blog in 2004. He logged on to Twitter five years later. The move from blogging to microblogging came naturally, he says. But it came at a price. As with most bloggers, Twitter took his time and energy away from lengthier, more analytical blog posts. “But it was also a more interesting place to be in,” he says.

Twitter, as well as Facebook, are always open on his computer screen. His interpretation of them is utilitarian, almost technocratic. “They are tools for achieving objectives,” he says, adding that he uses them selectively, taking advantage of the strengths of each service. But he makes no secret of his preferences. “Twitter is more dynamic, more direct, but also more demanding. Its 140-character limit means that you have to be laconic, but that is also its comparative advantage because it forces you to be more precise,” he says. “Twitter is also more versatile. It is more receptive to social change, to the entrance of new users,” he says, with recent data showing the San Francisco-based network has surpassed half a billion members – about a third of the active global Internet population.

We are introduced to a tiny yet diverse sample of these users in “#Followme.” In the film, Andriotakis discusses how Twitter has changed human interaction with Greek twitterati, as well as with renowned cyber-skeptic Evgeny Morozov, tech writer Jeff Jarvis, former Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis, and a self-styled anarchist troll sporting a dragon’s head mask. One of the first things he did when he started shooting was to have some of them meet offline in the same room. It didn’t work. “Interaction among them left a lot to be desired. Offline communication follows very different rules,” he says.

Most studies suggest Twitter is not a reliable indicator of public opinion. But does that mean it is an overrated, deceptive microcosm? Or can it not become more than the sum of its parts? Does it not, as many techno-optimists would like us to believe, have the power to mobilize toward a superior, offline end? “#Followme” inevitably discusses the role of digital technologies in propping up popular protest movements – a view made popular after pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. “I used to think that Twitter is value-neutral. But it seems like I was wrong,” Andriotakis says. He quotes a metaphor first used by Morozov, author of “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” who compares the Internet with a car on an icy road. No matter how good your brakes are, he says, the car will not stop. What counts most, Andriotakis says, is the conditions in which you act and react. “Twitter has a democratizing, liberalizing potential but it really depends a lot on the overall level of media literacy, on how educated and well-trained people are,” he says.

Such concerns are clearly reflected in the issue of online etiquette. With commenters able to hide behind a veil of anonymity, Twitter and other online forums habitually degenerate into arenas of vitriol and hate. For Andriotakis, withholding your identity on the public domain defeats the purpose. “You should by no means ban anonymity, but you should not encourage it either. There is great benefit from being public. Sure, there are risks, but living in constant fear and mistrust will get you nowhere. Putting an issue out in public gives you, or perhaps somebody else, a better chance to deal with it,” he says. Andriotakis, who produced a documentary about the safety threat posed by illegal billboards along Greece’s highways, says the grassroots campaign for their removal, which included road accident victims and their families, would never have been as successful if it had been anonymous.

While some Internet users choose to disguise their identity, others work extra hard to feed and promote it. Several studies have established a link between social media and socially aggressive narcissism. Skeptics say narcissists have simply found a new outlet to vent their inflated egos. “We all want to be loved, we all want to be noticed and to be attractive. Make no mistake, we are interacting in the midst of an attention industry and we are naturally acting a bit like children, always seeking a bit of attention. But you should at least try to draw attention in a way that is true to yourself – even if it sometimes comes out a bit angry or nervous.”

@andriotakis for one, does.

Tweeting to the converted

By Harry van Versendaal

Next time you want to get an idea of who is going to win the elections, make sure you log out of your Twitter account first.

“I was led to believe that Drasi would easily gather more than 4 percent,” says journalist Dimitris Rigopoulos, who followed Greece’s recent election campaign through social media.

He was not alone. Stories and discussions trending on social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook ahead of the May 6 polls convinced many that the pro-reform, free-market party led by former minister Stefanos Manos would put on more than a decent showing.

In the end, Drasi collected a scant 1.8 percent of the vote, a result that killed its ambition of making it into Parliament. In fact, none of its political kin — Dimiourgia Xana (Recreate Greece) and Democratic Alliance — cleared the 3 percent threshold which would grant them seats in the House. Opinion polls, a more traditional tool for measuring voters’ intentions, had safely predicted the failure.

Are people reading too much into social media? Yes, some experts suggest, arguing that the political content of social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter is by no means representative of the general population.

“I do think Greece’s liberals are over-represented in the social media, particularly on Twitter,” says Manolis Andriotakis, a journalist, author and social media expert.

Drasi currently has more than 4,800 followers on Twitter (about 4.2 followers per 100 Drasi voters), which is more than half of the 8,140 (about 0.7 followers per 100 ND voters) following New Democracy, the party which came first in the polls.

“Liberals have hijacked Twitter, so to speak, because they realized from early on that social media are basically a platform for debate — and debating is something they like,” says Andriotakis.

Studies suggest the phenomenon is not exclusive to Greece. Scientists at the Pew Research Center in Washington recently found that Internet users who identify themselves as moderate or liberal are more likely than conservatives to be involved in social networking sites.

The blogosphere, on the other hand, has pretty much remained property of leftists given their soft spot for long-winded theories and analyses, says Andriotakis, who is the author of “Blog: News From Your Own Room.” But sites like Facebook and especially Twitter — the revolutionary microblogging tool that limits content to 140 characters — are encouraging bloggers to leave some of their habits behind.

“Social media have pushed these people to become more concise,” Andriotakis says.

The last elections saw Greek parties and candidates embrace social media like never before. Prompted by a lack of cash that took a toll on costly communication campaign tactics such as television ads and leaflets, Greek parties went online to share their message ahead of the vote. Driven by a dedicated crowd of mostly young, tech-savvy staff and supporters, smaller parties in many ways outdid their bigger but slower-moving rivals.

However, some analysts say, if Greek liberal parties enjoyed a strong presence in the social media, it was not because of the ideas they stand for, but because they were alone in openly discussing issues seen as crucial by the local intellectual elite, such as the need for immediate and far-reaching reforms.

“Liberal ideas as such have little influence in Greek society,” journalist and blogger Thodoris Georgakopoulos observes.

Limited influence

Pro-liberal or not, the overall influence of social media in Greece should not be overestimated. Quite the opposite in fact, as figures show that the penetration of the Internet in Greek homes is surprisingly low. Around 40 percent of people here use the Internet compared with 80 percent in the UK. Less than 2 percent are on Twitter. Using these sites as maps for political behavior is, well, wrong.

“Social media are like a distorting mirror. Those who are most active are part of a self-loving intellectual elite,” Georgakopoulos says. Perhaps you could draw some conclusions from the more mainstream networking sites like Facebook or even from user comments on YouTube, he says, referring to the popular video-sharing site — but again, “they would hardly be representative of society at large.”

Part of the problem is that even those users who do surf the Internet don’t grasp its potential. “A lot of people still browse the Internet in a linear fashion, just like they do with television or a newspaper,” Andriotakis says, meaning that people tend to navigate the Internet in a linear pattern — on click at a time, like it’s a TV or radio broadcast. Users are not the only ones sticking to old habits. While the country’s traditional media have increasingly occupied space on the World Wide Web, they have clumsily used it as a noninteractive, Web-based mirror of their existing content. That said, one should one underestimate the influence of traditional broadcasters on social media. Figures provided by the Harvantics social media metrics website show parties and candidates trending on Twitter and Facebook after appearing on TV.

But while techno-optimists praise social media for providing us with more diverse sources of information — take, for example, the indirect exposure from retweeted messages — skeptics insist that the Internet can, in fact, narrow our horizons.

Businesses try to sway us by tailoring their services to our personal preferences; Twitter tells us who we should follow based on our existing contacts; Amazon recommends books based on our buying history; iTunes suggests songs we might like based on our music library. We, in other words, run the risk of getting trapped in a “filter bubble,” missing out on information and stimulants that could challenge and expand our worldview. Similarly, our Twitter feed can feel more like an echo chamber of like-minded friends.

“You pick your own sources so you are selectively exposed to information. You only see a part of reality. You create your own microcosm. And this is something you need to always keep in mind,” says Katerina Petraki, a public sector food inspector who casually uses Twitter to access views and information that are filtered out of mainstream media outlets.

Not all is bad, of course. It may be that the idea Facebook or Twitter can change your mind-set is an illusion, Rigopoulos admits. “But thanks to the social media, I discovered there are a lot more people out there who actually see things the way I do,” he says.

“It’s not that this community of like-minded people is expanding. It’s just that we get to know each other.”

Egyptian revolution: Download at 50 percent

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s night and small group of friends are sitting inside a living room. The shades are closed but the lights are off. Outside, a group of men wielding knives and clubs are coming down the street shouting slogans. “It’s the f***ing thugs,” a voice says as a small HD camera rolls. It’s the first few days of Egypt’s revolution in January 2011, and nobody really has a clear idea of what is going on.

Filmmakers Karim El Hakim, an Egyptian American, and Omar Shargawi, a Dane, got a chance to film the dream of a lifetime as the Egyptian capital was swept by protests against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Armed with consumer HD and phone cameras, the two activist friends shift the focus back and forth between the violence in and around Tahrir Square and the heated conversations inside the downtown apartment, covering 11 days of the revolution.

Shot at a high-speed pace, with shaky footage (that may put off some older viewers) and claustrophobic close-up shots and augmented with a dramatic score, the end result is a diary-like, action-packed verite personal documentary that will keep you on the end of your seat. With no choice due to the escalating violence, the filmmakers flee the country together with El Hakim’s wife and child, leaving both the revolution and the project unfinished. “Half Revolution,” which draws on some 120 hours of footage, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January.

El Hakim, a tall man with unruly curls and sporting a leather jacket, was in Thessaloniki for the promotion of the film, which was screened at the coastal city’s documentary festival this week. Born in Palo Alto, California, he moved between the United States and Egypt for years, until ultimately settling in Cairo a decade ago, largely prompted by the anti-Arab backlash after 9/11. He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about those “11 life-changing days” and shared his thoughts about the prospects of this “half revolution.”

What were you doing when the whole thing started?

We were working on a feature film directed by Omar, set in Cairo and loosely based on the Book of Job. It’s about an Egyptian-Danish man who comes back to Cairo and the second he sets foot in the country his whole life is turned upside down. The man blames God for his troubles, he turns his back on him and sees what living without God means. You’ll definitely hear about it soon.

Are you religious?

Not particularly. I actually come from a very Sufi background, but strict religion is not something I believe in. I think everybody has their own religion in a sense.

When did you consciously decide to go beyond coverage of events and make yourselves the subjects of the movie?

We started by trying to capture things happening on the street. We were shooting stuff in the street and then shooting stuff at home, mostly conversations, because there was nothing else to do. Then on January 25 we got arrested at around 1.30 in the morning in Tahrir Square as the police really brutally attacked the people; a lot of people were shot and a lot of people died that night. We got beaten up by a hundred guys, thrown in a box, we were separated, sort of reunited in the box, then taken to a prison. We were released at around 4 a.m. because we played dumb — we pretended we were foreign tourists and they let us go. That traumatic experience made us realize that even though there was stuff happening around us, there was also stuff happening to us and we wanted to capture that. And we realized the best way to tell the story was through the frame of reference of characters and that we were, in fact, the characters. So the film became a kind of autobiographical account of what we were going through. We didn’t use any historical clips, or YouTube clips. It’s not the history of the revolution. It’s not a history lesson.

You must have tons of material.

Yes, we have around 120 hours of material. We had three to four cameras going and everybody was filming as much as they could.

What did you shoot with?

Just small consumer HD cameras. I even shot with an iPhone.

Did you have any of your material confiscated?

Actually, the night we were arrested, Omar tried to film inside the police truck and a policeman took the chip out of his phone. So we did lose some important material that night, but we were were able to patch up the storytelling. In the end, we were lucky to get out with all the footage. [At the airport] I had to hide some of the stuff in my son’s diapers. We were very scared about getting caught, because we heard of other journalists getting caught. I even cut my hair, really short and boring, wore really boring clothes, pretending to be an English teacher. Having a baby of course helped.

Where did you fly to?

We went to Paris, where my uncle and cousins live. We stayed there for three months until the dust settled and then went back to Cairo.

Were you or anyone else hurt during the protests?

I got shot in the head with a rubber bullet; luckily it missed my eye by about half an inch. And on the night we were arrested, I was beaten up pretty badly. Otherwise I was pretty lucky. We missed some bullets that flew very close to us.

Where exactly do you live in Cairo?

I live right downtown, two blocks from Talaat Harb Square and four blocks from Tahrir.

What was the situation like in other neighborhoods? At some point your wife says she’s off to [the more affluent residential district of] Zamalek to get some milk for the baby.

Zamalek is like an island in the middle of the Nile. It is more upscale and was actually a safer zone to be in. There were not many protests happening in Zamalek. Life did go on in certain parts of the city. Downtown was really the battlefield.

Did you use Twitter or any other social media?

I actually started using Twitter once they turned the Internet back on, but I did not have a smartphone. Some of my friends used [BlackBerry’s encrypted messenger service] PBM to communicate and to mobilize and to warn each other where not to go to avoid the police. But when they cut the Internet everybody went out on the street to find out what was happening. And then, when they turned it back on, the crowd thinned as a lot of people left to upload their clips. It’s ironic. [The authorities] used it as a weapon to manipulate the crowds, so relying on that kind of stuff was useful but it cannot ever replace actually being there.

We don’t see any journalists from the mainstream media in your film.

They were not really part of our reality. I didn’t see many journalists in the street, most of the journalists were sitting at five-star hotels shooting from their balconies. We did try to get in touch with people to upload these clips but we couldn’t find them, they were too busy or got arrested.

Is it more dangerous for you now that you’ve made the movie?

I guess I’m waiting for that knock on the door. But it hasn’t happened yet. And I think part of the reason why it hasn’t happened is that in Egypt they are really not concerned with what is shown outside of the country. They are more concerned about what is shown inside the country. So as it’s shown in Cairo for the premiere there will probably be reactions to it.

Where do you see things going from here? Do you see a fresh showdown with the army?

There are daily showdowns with the army now. Some are violent, some are not, but I think ultimately it is sort of the beginning of the end of their completely privileged place. I think that they will have to compromise with the people and work with the Brotherhood. To what extent, we will have to see. Many people believe the Brotherhood have made a deal with the army allowing them to take power on the condition that the army is not reformed — which is an empty wish. Because things are not going to go back to the way they were. On the other hand, the Brotherhood has always been an illegal party, so in a sense what the revolution has done is take them out of the shadows, put them into the light and legalize them; and there is a lot of pressure on them to perform. They have a lot of cleaning up to do. All these institutions that are rotten to the core, they have to be rebuilt. Ultimately, if they don’t do anything, they will feel it in the polls. This pressure is not going to go away. Something has woken up in people and it’s like the veil has been lifted from the eyes of the regular Egyptian. He has realized he has been living under a military dictatorship for 60 years and this was something they did not even really understand. Something has to change, hopefully for the better.

Were you surprised at it all?

I think the army really was trying to fend off a real revolution. It’s clear to me now in retrospect that on day three of the uprising, when the army went into town and basically styled themselves as the saviors of the revolution, that they were in fact trying to position themselves in a positive light by basically getting rid of Mubarak. It’s really difficult to invest in the military. In a sense we can only hope for the best and hope that the Brotherhood and the army will start to have some friction. They are certainly not the best of friends. But they have a common enemy, which is revolution, which is democracy. Neither of these groups is democratic, neither of these groups is liberal. They are both very conservative so at the moment we are seeing this counter-revolution being waged against the liberals and the youth parties and the workers’ parties to try to discredit the revolution and take people out of the game. It’s a real tense and fragile moment, but what is clear is that the military is up to a lot of dirty tricks. They are playing mind games, trying to confuse people. You need to influence the minds of the so-called couch party, the silent majority who only get news from state TV and terrestrial television, who don’t watch Al Jazeera, don’t have Internet, and only read government papers. And I think our film does the same on the international stage. I’ve been trying to spread the word through this film that the revolution is not over. A lot of people, especially in America and Europe, think, “Hey, the dictator is gone, the revolution is over, you must be so happy, everything is cool.” But it’s not. We’re only halfway done, maybe even less than halfway done.

The kindness of strangers

By Harry van Versendaal

“Show me your friends and I’ll show you who you are,” the saying goes. Dr Nicholas Christakis, 47, a physician and sociologist at Harvard University now says we may as well show the friends of our friends.

After studying a database of some 5,000 people over the course of 20 years, Christakis and collaborator James H. Fowler found that social networks can transmit things like obesity or smoking but also moods like happiness. More amazingly, Christakis claims, emotions can travel even between people who don’t know each other directly. For that finding, he was included in the TIME’s “100 most influential list” for 2009. The Greek American scientist talked to Athens Plus explaining, among other things, why we shouldn’t quite expect the ripple effect reaching our office cubicles.

First of all congratulations for making the list of the 100 most influential people of TIME magazine. Do you think this will help your work in any way?

This sort of unexpected recognition draws attention to this kind of work. And the kind of work we’re doing is to study social networks. We are very interested in why people have networks and what purpose networks serve. It is pretty obvious that people are influenced by the people they are directly connected to, but what is much more interesting is how people are influenced by people they’re not connected to. We are not interested in person-to-person transmission but person-to-person-to-person – like three degrees of influence.

Last week Sydney hosted a conference examining the causes of happiness. Do you think some people are born happier than others?

Yes, I do. It’s not totally genetic, but there is no doubt that there are disposition. Part of the variation of who’s happy and who’s not can be explained by genes.

Is happiness measurable? Have you based your research on a certain definition of happiness or on people’s statement of being happy?

We do use a standard measure of happiness. There are different ways of measuring these things, but I do think it’s possible. Human beings, we observe all kinds of subjective things all the time; we see whether people are in pain or not, we draw conclusions about people’s honesty or badness all the time.

According to a recent report, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands rate at the top of the world’s happiest places. Could your theory explain why people in some countries are happier than others?

Our work is about social networks. We look at how all kinds of things, ideas, behaviors, emotions spread in social networks. It’s easy to imagine how things like germs or money move across social ties. But we are interested in how unconventional things like hate or desire, behaviors or emotions move across social networks.

Could it be that happy or obese people for that matter are simply drawn to each other?

Of course that’s a possible explanation, but our work takes that into account. There’s a variety of possible explanations for this clustering of similar individuals within networks. One is a good Greek word, “homophily,” which is birds of a feather flocked together. So people who exercise hang out with people who exercise, people who are happy hang out with people who are happy. Another possible explanation is that some other factors that make people have similar traits in unison for example maybe there is an economic recession and that makes a lot of people unhappy. If you and I are friends and we both work in the same factory and lose our jobs we’re both going to become unhappy but not because I made you unhappy but because we were exposed to this other factor. And a third possibility is that my unhappiness causes your unhappiness and it is important in these kinds of analyses to take all of those possibilities into consideration.

You have said that the spread of happiness is more geographically limited than the spread of obesity is that so?

Our interest is in how things spread in social networks. But not everything that spreads in a network spreads by the same mechanism. And we think that emotions require face-to-face contact. And that has to be some kind of interaction. So therefore people who live far apart from each other may not come into contact with each other.

What about Schadenfreude. Does that contract your theory in any way?

For sure there is Schadenfreude. But on average there is more of the opposite. In our work we found that happiness does not spread among coworkers. We thought that this might be because of Schadenfreude.

Back to social networks now. You have said that the architecture of social networks and our position in them is genetically affected. Are you saying something other than that being shy or outgoing affects your status in society?

Yes we are. Most people wouldn’t be surprised if you said that some people had many friends and some people had few friends, some people are shy and some people are outgoing and that this has a partially genetic basis. We all know people who are from birth very shy for example. So if I said that some people had two friends and some people had ten friends the fact that that had a partially genetic basis would not be surprising. But here is something that should surprise you. I might have four friends and you might have four friends but my four friends might all know each other and your four friends might not know each other. This is something called transitivity in social networks. And it turns our that you and I would have different genes. What we find is something very interesting. We find that if Tom, Dick and Harry are in a room, whether Dick and Harry know each other depends not just on Dick and Harry’s genes but also on Tom’s genes. It’s very bizarre. If Dick and Harry know each other depends on a third person’s genes. And we think the reason is that people have a genetic tendency to introduce their friends. Some people are more likely to introduce their friends than others.

Where does religion fit in all this? Would you say that religious belief can be contagious like happiness or a habit?

I believe that religious beliefs spread, absolutely. That’s one way. Another way is one of the functions of religion is to bind social networks together. So if you and I both believe in the same god, I can feel connected to you even if I don’t know you. It’s like we’re friends of a friend.

Have you been able to draw any significant patterns from online social networks like Facebook or Twitter?

We’ve been doing some work with Facebook. We’ve looked at for instance smiling on people’s Facebook profiles. People who smile in their profile pictures have more friends who smile in their profile pictures and also have more friends in general.

Some scientists have criticized you of not having replicated your findings.

That’s not true. We’ve replicated our findings in several ways and other scientists have also replicated our findings. So for example our obesity findings we published a replication in the journal of Health Economics and our happiness findings have been replicated by several other groups both at Warrick and Oxford University in England.

What do you plan on focusing on next?

We are looking at the biology of social networks.

(This interview was first published in Athens Plus in May 2009)


Latest Tweets

Καμουφλάζ. #athens #architecture #highrise

versendaal's photostream

More Photos

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 29 other followers