Connective recovery in social networks after the death of a friend

Abstract

Most individuals have few close friends, leading to potential isolation after a friend’s death. Do social networks heal to fill the space left by the loss? We conduct such a study of self-healing and resilience in social networks. We compared de-identified, aggregate counts of monthly interactions in approximately 15,000 Facebook networks in which someone had died with similar friendship networks of living Facebook users. As expected, a substantial amount of social interaction was lost with the death of a friend. However, friends of the decedent immediately increased interactions with each other and maintained these added interactions for years after the loss. Through this, the social networks recovered approximately the same number of active connections that had been lost. Interactions between close friends of the decedent peaked immediately after the death and then reached stable levels after a year. Interactions between close friends of the decedent and acquaintances of the decedent stabilized sooner, within a few months. Networks of young adults, ages 18 to 24, were more likely to recover than all other age groups, but unexpected deaths resulted in larger increases in social interactions that did not differ by friends’ ages. Suicides were associated with reduced social-network recovery.

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Figure 1: Connective recovery.
Figure 2: Short- and long-term changes in interaction after the death of a friend.
Figure 3: Variation in connective recovery by subject age, close-friend age, interaction type and cause of mortality.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. Fowler, N. Christakis, C. Marlow, L. Adamic, D. Ferrante, A. Bejar, P. Fleming, W. Nevius and M. Jackman for their support on this project.

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Authors

Contributions

W.R.H. and M.K.B. designed the research; W.R.H. analysed the data; W.R.H. and M.K.B. wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to William R. Hobbs.

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Competing interests

W.H. was a Facebook research intern in 2013. M.B. is a Facebook employee. W.H. prepared the research protocol prior to his internship; Facebook then provided data access to W.H. to conduct the study as an intern. Facebook did not place any restrictions on the design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript, beyond the requirement that this work was to be done in compliance with its data policy and that the prepared manuscript was subject to internal research review to not release proprietary information. During the study protocol’s review by the California Department of Public Health, Facebook submitted a letter stating that it would not attempt to influence the scientific interpretation of the results and would not prohibit the publication of the results owing to their scientific content.

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Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures 1–8, Supplementary Tables 1–12, Supplementary References. (PDF 430 kb)

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Hobbs, W., Burke, M. Connective recovery in social networks after the death of a friend. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0092 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0092

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