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Daily chartFar-flung Facebook friends may be good for your health

SOCIAL networks were once thought to be little more than a passing fancy. In 2007, Steve Ballmer, then the boss of Microsoft, called the up-and-coming websites “faddish”. The following year, Rupert Murdoch, the boss of News Corporation, dismissed Facebook as “flavour of the month”. Today we know better. Social networks like Facebook, far from serving merely as entertainment for youngsters, are central to modern life, influencing the way people work and play. Social connections formed online now help shape many people’s identities in the real world.

New research suggests that our social media networks tell us more about ourselves than we may think. A study published last week in the Journal of Economic Perspectives by researchers from Facebook, Harvard, NYU and Princeton analyses the social “connectedness” of Americans, as measured by friendship links on Facebook. Using aggregated and anonymised data, the authors find that Americans with tightly clustered social networks comprised mainly of friends located within a short distance of their home tend to have lower incomes, lower levels of education and lower life expectancies. Those with more geographically dispersed social networks tend to be richer, more educated and healthier (see chart). 

Social networks are related to several other key measures of social and economic activity. For example, places whose residents have dense Facebook friendship links tend to do a lot of trade with each other, even after controlling for geographic distance. Such connections are also associated with patent citations, highlighting the role of knowledge spillovers in spurring innovation. The authors find that Facebook friendships follow regional migration patterns. This includes migration that took place decades ago. Facebook users in midwestern American cities like Chicago, for example, have strong connections with the South, reflecting links that were formed during the Great Migration of blacks in the early 20th century (see map). 

These findings will help researchers better understand the real-world effects of social networks but may also prove valuable to policymakers. In their analysis of the relationship between social-media connections and trade, the authors note that each ten percentage-point increase in a state’s social connectedness to a foreign country is associated with 4.7% more imports from that country, and 6% more exports. Lawmakers looking for ways to reduce America’s $800bn trade deficit might consider strengthening relationships with those beyond their borders. 

Article source: https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2018/08/08/far-flung-facebook-friends-may-be-good-for-your-health

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