Why Social Networks aren’t always a good thing (part 1)

As a student of social network analysis and someone interested in designing better programs, I’ve sometimes fallen into the trap of thinking that technologies that can make a positive health change will spread like wildfire through a population, revolutionizing health and improving lives.  Social networks are powerful, and there is no doubt that we are strongly influenced by our family, friends, and acquaintances, but it turns out that the assumption that more connectivity is automatically better and good ideas and technologies will automatically be bolstered by networks is simply not true.  Below I present two quick examples, and a warning to those hoping to quickly and easily exploit the power of social networks.

Miller and Mobarak developed and tested an intervention where opinion leaders in the local community were given cookstoves, and then others to whom the stoves were marketed were told whether the opinion leaders accepted or rejected the stoves.  Unfortunately, those who knew that an opinion leader accepted the technology were more likely to have a favorable opinion of the stove, but no more likely to purchase one themselves.  However, if they knew that an opinion leader had rejected the stove, they were less likely to purchase one themselves.

Another study of deworming in Kenya hoped that when mass deworming medication was distributed to certain schools, it would not only spread to others by word of mouth but also through experiential learning due to observable spillover effects.  However, those whose contacts received deworming medication were ultimately less likely to purchase the medication themselves.  The authors suggest that an overly optimistic understanding of the permanence of deworming and the lack of observable private benefit for those dewormed resulted in these negative outcomes.

Both of these programs provide good examples of network effects that actually restricted uptake.  It’s important to remember that while networks will spread information, if the benefits of an idea are poorly understood or communicated or if people reject the idea, networks can also amplify those negative opinions as well.  In part 2, we’ll examine additional ways that networks can be harmful and discuss why this is the case.