Keeping in touch with distant friends, seeing which of your high-school classmates are married, viewing an endless stream of kitten photos … Facebook is good for a lot of things, but not many of them are actually productive. That could change after the release last week of an article suggesting that the power of the social-network behemoth could be harnessed to help influence our behavior for the better—for example, by helping smokers quit.
So says Thomas Valente, head of the University of Southern California’s public- health program and the author of the article, which was published in the latest issue of Science (paywalled). In it, Valente reviews what researchers know about so-called social-network interventions—attempts to kick-start or staunch certain behaviors by leveraging the power of social networks. In other words, seed the behavior you want at node A, and watch it spread to nodes B through Z (assuming you’ve assessed the network correctly and chosen the right intervention).
In an interview, Valente described to The Daily Beast how it would work in practice: “If we’re able to scan all the photographs that somebody has up on their Facebook account, and we see that there are some friends that smoke and some that don’t, [then] we can figure out how to trigger communications across Facebook that say, ‘Look, you’re smoking and your friends don’t. You may think that a lot of your friends approve of your smoking, but they probably don’t. How can we generate some supports for you [that will] enable you to quit smoking?”
Of course, social psychologists have known for decades that our social networks strongly influence us, that what our peers do can greatly impact our behavior. But it’s only now, with the explosion of online social-networking tools like Facebook and Twitter—which generate terabytes of useful data—and the advent of advanced network-mapping software, that researchers are ready to fully exploit the power of social networks.
“There’s a whole bunch of stuff that we know about human behavior: how it works, how to influence it and change it,” Valente said. “And now we have these new platforms where we want to … graft these theories and ideas onto this new technology.
“Had I written this paper 10 years ago, it would have not really been much of a story,” Valente said.
Valente acknowledged that he and his colleagues aren’t the first to try to change behavior through online social networks. “Marketers are already doing that, and we’re just trying to catch up,” he said. There’s more money to be made in selling products than in stopping smoking, of course, so it’s no surprise that marketers have been the first wave of tinkerers to try to ride Facebook’s reach.
When it comes to antismoking interventions and the like, there are potential downsides, perhaps the most obvious being the risk to personal privacy.
Valente noted that ethical principles prevent scientists from disclosing private data without obtaining consent first, but he was also quick to point out that “there has always been an illusion of privacy, because very few people live in an entirely private world.” In other words, it would be easy for a researcher to ascertain someone’s position in a social network without doing much gumshoe-level snooping. And online, he said, “most people voluntarily give up that information.
“In some sense, the online-privacy ship has sailed,” Valente said.