Management & Organization

Your friends have more friends than you. And that's a good thing

About network science, the friendship paradox and how the flu is transmitted.

Yes, it may sound sad, but it is true. According to what is known as the friendship paradox your friends, statistically, have more friends than you. But don’t let this get you down. The same thing most likely applies to them, and besides, it really isn’t that bad.

In order to find out where the good thing about this seemingly sad statement is buried, you will need to know a little bit about network science, the friendship paradox and about how the flu is transmitted.

Why your friends have more friends than you

That your friends have more friends than you, may sound illogical. But the reason is in fact simple: There is a larger possibility that you are friends with a person who has a lot of friends, than with a person who has few friends. Or put in a different way: It is more likely that you know the popular people and less likely that you know the less popular people. Some people have no friends, but you are not friends with those (since they have no friends).

The more friends you have, the more you'll tend to occupy a central part of your network. The more central the position of your popular friends, the more they are prone to be in a place where the can catch something that is contagious. And it's not just the flu we are talking about. Within the field of network science, it is discussed that also ideas, the latest trends, behavior, etc. spread through social networks the same way the flu does.

It is not just the flu that is contagious

Network science deal with how people function in social networks and uses the friendship paradox to predict how a virus, for example, spreads. Nicolas Christakis, who's one of the most prominent researchers in network science, has used this method in order to predict an outbreak of the flu more than two weeks before it peaked. Which is far better than the traditional methods, that are more likely to carry two weeks of delay on decribeing the present situation.

To be able to predict when the large group of test subjects catches the flu, you have to identify the most centrally placed persons, in a specific network. And this is where the friendship paradox comes into play.

In order to find the central people in a network, all you need is for random selected people to nominate a friend. According to the friendship paradox these friends will have far more friends than the original test subject – and therefore sit at a more central network position.

Then, both random selected test subjects and their self-nominated friends are monitored. Since the position of the friends, statistically, is more centralized, these will get sick sooner than the randomly selected.

Cristakis carried out the experiment with a group of American college students in when an outbreak of H1N1 Flu began to spread. And the result was conclusive: The most centralized students (the friends) were catching the flu averagely 16 days before the rest. That gives an entire 16 days warning before the epidemic peaks among the other students.

Network science has a far wider range of use than predictions of flu epidemics. There's a lot of other things, we are able to follow, through our various networks. Ideas, behavior, obesity, crime, wealth, happiness, success etc.

Great networks makes teams more innovative

If you're able to use you and your coworker’s network strategically, then research shows that there's value to be obtained, for both companies and organizations.  

Cristakis is, among other things, also part of a company that analyses the social networks of companies and provide recommendations on how they are able to exploit and activate it. Studies from one of these companies show that both ideas and innovation are contagious.

Their analysis of teams with innovative tasks showed, that the teams with most coherency were also the teams with highest performance (that is, they scored the highest on amount of permits and launched products etc.). Having at least one person on the team with a great network, had a huge impact too.

In his Ted Talk from 2010, Cristakis, tells us that the method is also makes sense in regard to marketing campaigns. Imagine, if you could make contact with the most influential people of a relevant network, what effect it could have on every person in the network. It increases the probability if your message spreading.

Nurse and take care of your company’s network

So there's no reason to feel sad about your friends being more popular. The friendship paradox has lots of practical possibilities.

Internally in an organization, it is important to know how your internal network is. And perhaps you should be more aware of how your future coworker’s network is like.

Supposedly, what everybody take away from this, is the fact that we should stop stressing about how everyone else seems to be doing a lot better, be more successful and so on. Accept it, because it's probably true.