May 242010
A social network diagram
Image via Wikipedia

CHANCES are your friends are more popular than you are. It is a basic feature of social networks that has been known about for some time. Consider both an avid cocktail party hostess with hundreds of acquaintances and a grumpy misanthrope, who may have one or two friends. Statistically speaking, the average person is much more likely to know the hostess simply because she has so many more friends. This, in essence, is what is called the “friendship paradox”: the friends of any random individual are likely to be more central to the social web than the individual himself.

Now researchers think this seemingly depressing fact can be made to work as an early warning system to detect outbreaks of contagious diseases. By studying the friends of a randomly selected group of individuals, epidemiologists can isolate those people who are more connected to one another and are therefore more likely to catch diseases like the flu early. This could allow health authorities to spot outbreaks weeks in advance of current surveillance methods.

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