Constructive Contagions: Social Media, Meet Social Engineering
When it comes to your friends and social networks, to paraphrase the Knight of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “You must choose wisely.”
In recent years, an astonishing amount of science has emerged supporting the notion that our personal behaviors with regards to health, wealth and ethics are directly informed by those in our social circle. One study after another has shown that depression, weight gain and eating habits, drug and alcohol use, spending and wealth behavior and other similar behaviors are contagious – spreading amongst our social networks almost like a virus.
A growing number of public health practitioners are examining how social media – and social networks in particular – can be used to promote individual well- being on a community – indeed population sized – level. Social Media, meet Social Engineering.
At issue, of course, is how to encourage people to adopt healthy habits and discourage dangerous ones. More and more, it seems that thought leaders are focusing on means to manipulate networks to inject positive messages. In this model, programs would target key influences in a social network in an effort to foster a contagion of positive messages. Naturally, these networks include any social space – but we’re particularly interested in online social networks. Online social networks allow users to identify prospective influences, especially with ongoing improvements in data analysis.
To some, this may sound like a somewhat sinister future. How far removed is this type of social engineering from some of the darker portrayals of science fiction? And will the “manipulation” simply end at the idea of preventing smoking, obesity and other health dangers?
Before leaping to the barricades and protesting, it’s worth noting that the jury is still out as to whether online social networks can have the same level of effect that we’ve noted here. For every case study that suggests “yes,” there seems to be another burst of research that implies “no.”Continued on the next page