Jan. 25 2012 04:25 PM

The UCSD professor's work studying and analyzing social networks continues to turn heads

James H. Fowler, a real-world social-network guru
(Photo courtesy James H. Fowler)
James H. Fowler is used to the limelight. But whether he's basking in the warm glow or squinting against the harsh glare depends on the day. Fowler's officially working with Facebook these days and he's one of the authors of a new study examining the evolutionary basis of cooperation, scheduled to be published in the scientific journal Nature on Thursday, Jan. 26, which means the young social scientist might get a lot more attention in coming months. His experience has taught him to take it all in stride and simply answer people's questions, agree to most interviews and, when the media attention wanes, get right back to work.

Fowler, a professor of medical genetics and political science at UCSD, made waves in 2007 when he and Nicholas A. Christakis published a paper in The New England Journal of Medicine on the spread of obesity through social networks. In 2009, the duo came out with a popular book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, which discussed the social contagion of not only obesity, but also emotions, ideas and behaviors like happiness, politics and smoking.

Connected was a hit, in part because of popular fascination with online social networks at the time (although the studies were based on the real-world social networks of the volunteers in The Framingham Heart Study rather than people on Twitter and Facebook). The implications of the findings were big: No longer were things like gaining weight or smoking a matter of one's own free will; there was this idea of the powerful yet invisible hand of a social network pushing a person along. Unlike with most academic books, sales were brisk and mainstream media paid attention. Fowler's been a guest on The Colbert Report twice.

While some critics attributed the book's findings to birds-of-a-feather common sense, harsher critics questioned the study's methods and conclusions. Last August, The New York Times gave credence to those criticisms in an article highlighting both sides of the extremely academic argument.

“It's a little bit hard to take, but eventually you get over it because you realize that the critics have their moment to get people's attention,” Fowler said over a cup of coffee at Espresso Mio in his Mission Hills neighborhood. “But, over time, that will fade and people will hopefully weigh the information from both sides.”

In other words, Fowler, who's quick with a smile or boisterous laugh, has largely moved on from that debate. He and Christakis are already working on their next book, which will be about the biological basis of friends and societal structure, and he's enthusiastic about the findings so far, some of which come from the Nature paper to be published this week, “Social Networks and Cooperation in Hunter-Gatherers.”

“The social networks we have now… are social networks that we appear to have had since we were early humans,” Fowler said. “And not only that, but our identity as a social species—as a species that cares for one another or tends to be altruistic—what our paper shows is that the evolution of those early traits, of our tendency to be generous, may have had something to do with social networks.”

The paper is based on field research conducted by Coren L. Apicella, a fellow at Harvard Medical School. It's the first study to examine connections between people in a still-existing hunter-gatherer community—specifically, the Hadza people in Tanzania, Africa, whose structure and lifestyle is similar to that of our ancient ancestors. The findings provide insight into the possible evolution of altruism and cooperation in humans.

“What this study tells us is that our tendency to make friends is ancient,” Fowler explained. “This is not something that started with Facebook. It's not something that started with the telephone or the telegraph or even smoke signals. It's something that's an ancient part of our identity as human beings.”

In addition to his research on hunter-gatherer behavior, Fowler started working directly with Facebook in 2010, and he's been busily collecting real-time data and preparing to release a slew of studies later this year. He's working on topics including the spread of happiness and the effects of social networks on employment and voting, which could have a big impact if the findings are released in a presidential-election year.

People have come to connect Fowler's name with social networks, and even though his work up until recently has focused on real-world social networks rather than online social sites, he still gets calls from start-up businesses looking for advice on social-media strategy.

“I always find it kind of interesting when they come to me, because we really cut our teeth in real-world social networks,” Fowler said. “I think it has huge implications for what's going on online, but sometimes I don't have a lot to say…. But I usually lead with, ‘Well, if you're trying to change behavior, you've got to make sure these online networks are actually real-world connections.

“Your real-world friends—many of them—are also on Facebook, and so embedded in this online social network is the real-world social network that matters so much,” he continued. “But you hear these social-media gurus saying these platitudes about how all you need to do is get a million followers and then the world will beat a path to your door, and it's not that simple.”

Fowler, who was one of Foreign Policy's “Top 100 Global Thinkers” and was named a 2010 Guggenheim fellow, almost always has a full schedule of upcoming appearances. At two recent TEDx San Diego events, he conducted a social-mapping experiment in which he used the Twitter handles of attendees to analyze social behavior specific to that sort of intellectual networking event (the results can be found on his website).

At his talks, Fowler inevitably gets peppered with questions about online social media rather than the real-world social networks he's been studying, but he's used to it. What he generally tells his audiences is that Facebook and Twitter are basically the “gateway drug to real-world social activity” and while they were instrumental in organizing Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street protests, it's still real-world connections that really matter.

“It's still that face-to-face interaction that drives behavior,” he said.

This year could be a big one for Fowler. His previous success in the popular-culture spotlight, though, has taught him to be both appreciative and wary of the extra attention.

“This is all new for me,” he said. “I didn't sign up to be a public figure; I wanted to be a scientist.”

Write to kinseem@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Follow Kinsee on Twitter: @kinsee


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