One thing we can learn from even a casual inspection of the science of networks is the limits of our everyday understanding of people. For example, consider how much time and energy social metrics companies are spending convincing us that they can find those with the highest levels of influence (‘influencers’) relative to a market or a group of brands, and once discovered, these influencers simply need to be influenced as a stepping stone to convincing the entire market to buy your corn flakes, mobile device, or book. A sort of marketing Domino theory.
But it turns out that people — and marketers — don’t really understand influence very well, despite being embedded in social networks their entire lives: we really don’t understand the way that we are influenced by other people. For example, if someone touches you when you first meet, you are ten times more likely to remember that person. But we are unaware, later, that the touch was the reason for our recollection. We underestimate the impact of a kind word, or the chilling effects of workplace fear. There are dozens of examples of this sort coming out of cognitive science that demonstrate that we are being strongly influenced below the conscious level, physiologically, all the time. The actions of others can make us fearful, or confident, or curious, or suspicious — and it can happen invisibly. People just don’t have a great insight into the social interactions of people, despite being involved in them.
Most contemporary thinking about our social interactions is derived from an economic view that considers groups as collections of individuals, where each individual makes more-or-less rational decisions intended to maximize benefits to themselves and their loved ones.
I think there is a analogy with the historical physics view of how fluids work, like water, or water specifically.
Like people, water is everywhere. and we come into contact with it everyday, when we wash, cook, drink, or bathe. But, just like people, close contact with water does not let us understand water’s workings. And, strangely, we don’t come into regular contact with other liquids to any extent like our experience of water, so it is both familiar and yet badly understood.
For example, liquid water is not a amorphous blob of H20 atoms, as I was taught in high school. It is a complex, quasi-crystalline substance, with giant aggregations of water molecules forming and breaking apart all the time. These supermolecules are responsible to a great extent for the extremely unusual qualities of water, like its high heat coefficient: water changes temperature very slowly because these supermolecules are slow to change their rates of vibration. If water was really just a bunch of uninvolved H2O molecules, it wouldn’t be anything like water. Water is also inclined to move from networks of supermolecules into a crystalline solid as it gets colder, which leads to one of the strangest qualities of water: solid water floats on liquid water. We take this for granted, and don’t consider it unusual: but it is very very unusual, and life on Earth depends on that property of water.
Just like water, we are around people all the time, but we don’t understand how connected together we are. It’s easy to consider people as individuals, bumping into each other like billiard balls, making independent decisions, individuals coincidentally living and working in close proximity. But we aren’t like that, at all, any more than water is made up of totally independent molecules.
The new physics has opened our understanding of the most common liquid on earth, one absolutely central to life, one that we touch everyday. Just so, social physics will allow us to understand our connection to each other, and how our thinking, beliefs, values and behavior are almost totally shaped by social ties to others. But it may require that we reconsider almost everything we think we know about ourselves and others.