Social butterflies are popular with both people and germs

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September 16, 2010

11:36 PM

So, we’ve all been back for a few weeks, now, and have caught up with our friends. This, of course, means that the first round of colds is already on its way through campus. After all, we traveled around the country and the world during the summer and brought all of those viruses back to share. If you are one of those people coming down with, or recovering from, a cold, I have some news that may cheer you up: You might be more popular than the healthy kids.

Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University and James Fowler from the University of California just published a study on the spread of last year’s H1N1 virus among students at Harvard; they found some interesting trends. Their main finding was that popular people tend to get sick from a contagious disease first. When you think about it, this conclusion is quite understandable. Social butterflies have more friends and meet more people, giving them a greater chance of encountering an infected individual and contracting the disease. Although all social groups wind up with similar rates of disease in the end, the popular kids get sick about two weeks earlier. Aside from getting sick first, the popular are the best disseminators of colds, or the flu; they have the most friends, and they can infect the most people.

The method used by the researchers to test this theory also deserves mention. To conduct the study, they needed to identify a sub-group of popular people. Popularity was computed using social network theory, which maps the connections between people. More popular people are located toward the center of the network and have linkages to more people. Christakis and Fowler selected a random group of students and asked them to name one friend. On average, the friend they named was more popular than they were.

This interesting phenomenon is the result of popular individuals being friends with many people and making up a disproportionate amount of any randomly selected person’s friend group. Furthermore, if an individual is asked to name just one or two of his or her friends, he or she is likely to select those that connect them to others and are, therefore, probably more popular.

Christakis and Fowler hope that their findings could be useful in tracking the spread of diseases by possibly using popular people as an early indicator of disease outbreaks. In the meantime, we can use this information to prepare for flu season, which will be upon us in a few weeks. Here are some suggestions:
Find some popular people in your classes and observe them. If they bring tissues or start coughing, start stocking up on Advil and disinfectant.

The Student Assembly should consider reserving its subsidized flu shots only for the most popular students. This action could greatly reduce the spread of disease across campus. They could determine popularity in the same way as Christakis and Fowler. Each student should be asked to name one or two friends — and the people most often named should be given shots.

Ok, I know that won’t happen. But seriously, cool people, get your shots and take your vitamins.

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