Letter

Connective recovery in social networks after the death of a friend

  • Nature Human Behaviour 1, Article number: 0092 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0092
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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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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.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Division of Social Sciences, University of California San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive 0521 La Jolla, California 92093-0521, USA

    • William R. Hobbs
  2. Network Science Institute, Northeastern University, 177 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA

    • William R. Hobbs
  3. Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Harvard University, 1737 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • William R. Hobbs
  4. Facebook, Menlo Park, California 94025, USA

    • Moira K. Burke

Authors

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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.

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to William R. Hobbs.

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    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures 1–8, Supplementary Tables 1–12, Supplementary References.