How Social Networks Can Make Us Smarter: Social Physics

Anthropology, sociology, and psychology are all branches of science that have previously explained human behavior. But the Digital Age has introduced the need for a new way to look at how the new social networks are affecting human behavior and the rate and flow of ideas: social physics.


Alex Pentland’s, ‘Social Physics’ is a series of research the MIT scientist has collected through the experiments of both his own and of others’, about how the digital breadcrumbs we are leaving are explaining vast new areas of human behaviors.  Social physics starts with understanding that the way we look at human behavior now; as groups in markets or classes, is OUTDATED. And too broad. Pentland proposes that we create more than enough data to study within our own networks of individual interactions.

Here is a breakdown of the book in 4 parts:

Part I: Social Physics- The basic breakdown of Pentland’s idea. The two building blocks of social physics are idea flow and social learning. Idea flow is essentially exploration, the process of finding new ideas, and engagement, creating a behavioral norm from the idea. Social learning is creating human behavior from idea flow.

  • One of Pentland’s most interesting studies called The FunFit study is in this part, and basically, supports the idea that social network incentives can create organizations guided by change (it starts on pg. 67)

Part II: Idea Machines- Breaks down how social physics is composed of patterns of interactions, and those patterns create intelligence. When a pattern of interaction is created, things like creativity and productivity are affected and increase.

Part III: Data-Rich Cities- This part is the base of part IV in Pentland’s book, and explains the local effect of social physics. One interesting point in this part is that we essentially create 3 basic patterns that ‘set the rhythm’ of your neighborhood, city, etc. The patterns;

what you do on your typical school/workday

what you do on your days or evenings off from pattern #1,

and lastly, what you do every once in a blue moon, the wild card days

are exposed by our digital breadcrumbs, and can be seen from something as small as your mobile data usage. These bread crumbs can be used to directly measure human behavior. The population is defined by tribes, all of which have their own 3 patterns where rhythms are predictable every day of the week.  Even disease spread in your neighborhood is affected by social physics.

Part IV: Data-Rich Societies- Wraps up the whole idea of the book and applies it to society as a whole. Because of the ease of access to all of the data we are leaving, exchanging, and creating, there needs to be a new way to look at privacy. Pentland’s New Deal on Data proposes 3 things:

you have the right to have data that is about you.

you have the right to fully control the use of data that is about you.

you have the right to spread or destroy data that is about you.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus gave life to his clay figures with fire.

Social physics is that fire. So what does it all mean? Are we truly progressing? Will we regret it all?

You are already living social physics-

you might as well read it , and understand it (

and understand it.

(and you might as well buy it for as low as $3.98 on Amazon)


Kayla Millie ’17



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