Systems and complexity

Get the flu more than others? Take a look at your social networks

Do you seem to get the flu more often than other people? Writing in ABC Science, RMIT University lecturer Dr Stephen Davis discusses the extent to which complex social networks influence our lives, in particular how likely we are to catch or spread diseases like the flu.

He cites studies showing that during a disease outbreak, people near the centre of a social network1 are more likely to get sick and are more likely to be one of the first to get sick, and that obesity spreads through social networks2 in a similar way to viruses.

Davis advises that “distributions of connectedness mean that public health authorities can target people who are the most responsible for transmitting disease,” and offers this advice:

Connectedness and disease do go hand in hand. If you are a highly social person (a hub in your social network) you are more likely to get sick and you’ll be one of the first to get sick. In that case make sure you get the flu vaccine.

However, it’s not all bad news. Davis also discusses research showing that people with large social networks later in life may live longer3, and we’ve also previously seen how social networks influence career success.

The themes discussed in Davis’ article are also the focus of a TED presentation by Nicholas Christakis, who is co-author of two of the studies cited by Davis.

  1. Christakis N.A. & Fowler J.H. (2010). Social Network Sensors for Early Detection of Contagious Outbreaks. PLoS ONE 5(9): e12948. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0012948
  2. Christakis, N.A. & Fowler, J.H. (2007). The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years. New England Journal of Medicine, 357, 370-379.
  3. Giles, L., Glonek, G., Luszcz, M., & Andrews, G. (2005). Effect of social networks on 10 year survival in very old Australians: the Australian longitudinal study of aging. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 59(7), 574–579.

Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes ( is editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine ( and currently also teaches in the University of NSW (UNSW) Foundation Studies program in China. He has expertise and experience in a wide range of areas including knowledge management (KM), environmental management, program and project management, writing and editing, stakeholder engagement, communications, and research. Bruce holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction and a Certificate of Technology (Electronics). With a demonstrated ability to identify and implement innovative solutions to social and ecological complexity, Bruce's many career highlights include establishing RealKM Magazine as an award-winning resource for knowledge managers, using agile and knowledge management approaches to oversee the implementation of an award-winning $77.4 million river recovery program in western Sydney on time and under budget, leading a knowledge strategy process for Australia's 56 natural resource management (NRM) regional organisations, pioneering collaborative learning and governance approaches to support communities to sustainably manage landscapes and catchments, and initiating and teaching two new knowledge management subjects at Shanxi University in China.

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