Social networks allow us to accomplish what we can’t on our own and offer great benefit to the whole community. Research shows that vibrant social networks help lower crime rates, increase public health, and reduce political corruption—among other things. As such, they provide an essential tool to improve community wellbeing .
There are times when we see issues of injustice or inequity in our community that we want to change. We may want to help children struggling in school or coming to school hungry, or bridge a nasty divide between diverse neighboring communities, or fight the placement of a garbage burner in our neighborhood.
Achieving goals such as these is easier if we use our social networks to engage others. In the book, Better Together: Restoring the American Community, the author Robert Putnam tells us that the best way to involve other people is to use our friendship networks. Existing personal networks motivate people to participate even more than their ideological commitment or even their self-interest. For example, in the "do.town" community project initiated by Blue Cross in MN, 58% of the people who participated came because of a personal connection, rather than a desire to improve their own physical health. So relationships and interpersonal connections are essential tools in effecting change.
But you need to explicitly ask people to participate! For your initial steps, start with your own social networks, where you can build stronger bonds of trust and commitment. Then expand your existing network. Find groups that may have the different motives, but the same goals. For example, a group that is advocating for bike paths to promote physical activity in the community might join up with a group that wants to address climate change. Build bridges to those other groups.
Social networks are a valuable resource for all of us, and we should aim to include everyone so that they can benefit.
As Christakis powerfully writes in Connected, “our connections matter much more than the color of our skin or the size of our wallets. To address differences in educations, health, or income, we must also address the personal connections of the people we are trying to help. To reduce crime, we need to optimize the kinds of connections potential criminals have….to make smoking-cessation and weight-loss interventions more effective, we need to involve family, friends, and even friends of friends. To reduce poverty, we should focus not merely on monetary transfers or even technical training; we should help the poor form new relationships with other members of society.”
We can all aim to create bridging ties to people outside our normal social networks. One effective way to do this is through the arts. As Putnam notes in Better Together, evidence shows that “creative and performing arts bring together more ethnically diverse participants than any other type of association.” So look for ways to engage in arts in your community and offer the opportunity to do so to all groups.
Networks influence us, but we also have a strong influence on others. Christakis presents a large and varied body of evidence demonstrating that we all have a big impact on the people around us. “The ubiquity of human connection means that each of us has a much bigger impact on others than we can see. When we take better care of ourselves, so do many other people. When we practice random acts of kindness, they spread to dozens or even hundreds of other people.”
So think about what behavior you are modeling in your social network. Choose to act in ways that increase the trust, reciprocity, and altruism in the community. And make your good behavior visible!