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How social networks matter in a crisis


I wrote recently about the way Chinese citizens managed to self-organize themselves in response to the earthquake in the country back in 2008.

The paper reveals how young people in Chengdu didn’t wait for officials to tell them what to do, but rather took to social media to organize themselves.

Suffice to say, that networking was done on an online discussion forum, but a recent paper highlights how more old fashioned networking can also be advantageous during a crisis.

The research team looked at the social networks in the pre-Hispanic Southwest of America (1200-1400AD).  It emerged that the connectivity of the communities had a big influence on the survival rate during a crisis, which the authors believe could provide some strong lessons for crisis management in the modern world.

“In a lot of modern research in crisis management, people are looking at how communities mobilize along social networks to overcome traumatic environmental crises, like we saw with Hurricane Katrina,” the authors say.

“We’ve known for a long time that people rely on social networks during times of crisis. What we didn’t know, or at least what we haven’t really been able to demonstrate, is exactly what happened to the social networks at a regional scale as people began to rely on them, or how people modified and changed their networks in reaction to social and environmental crises,” they continue. “This research gives us insight into that.”

The researchers trawled through data gathered at the National Science Foundation’s Southwest Social Networks Project.  The project hosts a database of millions of artifacts from the period.

The authors suggest that when similar types of artifacts are found in similar proportions within different communities, it suggests a strong relationship between those two communities.

When around 800,000 such artifacts from over 700 sites were analyzed, it emerged that the apparent relationships between communities became much stronger during the 23 year long drought from that time.  The authors suggest that the communities were turning to their neighbors for help and support.

“It seemed to be a way to mobilize resources and to increase your variability of resources, by increasing your interaction with more distant people,” they say.

The researchers believe that communities with large social networks were better equipped to withstand crises such as drought.

They go on to suggest that the findings provide important insights into how modern communities can survive challenging times.

“A lot of people have hypothesized that this process of having more extensive social networks is sort of a backup strategy for people,” they say, “but this is one of the first times we’ve been able to demonstrate it at a very large, regional scale.

“It backs up a lot of these hypotheses about ‘social storage’ being as important as the real storage of actual items. The flip side is that if you are highly insular and protectionist and don’t interact with a lot your neighbors, you’re really susceptible.”

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