Social Mapping Experiment at TEDxSanDiego Explores Power of New Social Connections

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Researcher, author and Professor of Medical Genetics and Political Science at UC San Diego, James Fowler, was invited by TEDxSanDiego to conduct a social mapping experiment to observe and measure connections among participants. The experiment provides a powerful model that can be used by conferences and similar live events to trace the impact of participant interaction. This release includes social networking maps from the TEDxSanDiego 2010 experiment.

"Because we had prompted people to have ‘interesting conversations,’ they actually set out to discover new things. As a result, the patterns of interaction were very different from social interactions at a typical conference," said Fowler.

In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, the organizers of TEDxSanDiego ( saw an opportunity for a live social experiment to engage participants during break sessions at their inaugural 2010 event. They presented a set of challenges to James Fowler, University of California, San Diego Professor of Medical Genetics and Political Science. How could they observe and measure the connections among the attendees with minimal intrusion? How could they encourage participants to expand their interactions rather than merely network and gravitate toward others like themselves? How could those expanded interactions lead to new thinking, expanded ideas and new insights?

“Fowler was the perfect partner for the opportunity,” said TEDxSanDiego2010 co-organizer Andrea Kates, founder of The Business Genome® project. “He has a reputation for edgy twists on traditional sociology and community interaction. He’s known for his disarming, hilarious interplays with Stephen Colbert and he’s the author of a book about how social networks shape our lives,” Kates said, referring to Connected (

Fowler responded to the challenge with the first Social Mapping Experiment. “It’s reflective of the age of Twitter and Facebook, intended to expand people’s thinking and then trace their interplay,” Fowler explained. “It was also designed to be minimally intrusive. All people had to do was provide their name, the TED topic they were most passionate about and, optionally, their Twitter handle. Beyond that, everyone was encouraged to have ‘interesting conversations’ with others, and then fill in the names of the three to five people whose conversations best fit that description.”

During the breakout sessions, Fowler and fellow UCSD researchers Robert Bond and Chris Fariss mapped the interconnections of event participants. “We wanted to see who would talk to whom. Would there be patterns of people who were passionate about technology or art seeking each other out? Or would there be a lot of cross-conversations?” Fowler said. “The assumption had been that some patterns would emerge, with the most likely outcome being that people would gravitate toward like-minded people – the way that jocks, debate team members and drama club thespians would interact at a high school reunion.”

What Fowler and his team found was quite the opposite. “Because we had prompted people to have ‘interesting conversations,’ they actually set out to discover new things. As a result, the patterns of interaction were very different from social interactions at a typical conference. People mingled mostly with people not like themselves,” Fowler said. His summary of the experiment follows.

TEDxSanDiego2010 co-organizer Andrea Kates was inspired by her work with Fowler on the TEDxSanDiego social mapping experiment and is collaborating with him on the follow-up. “As you’ll see from James’s research analysis, this informal experiment provides a model with tremendous power to enhance the impact of other live events in the future. Through its application, we can see the viral effect of conversations, the relationships that develop and the results that are sparked by the ideas shared in community,” Kates said.

The main results of the findings, which are specific to TEDxSanDiego and not representative of TEDx at large, are available online for download at (

  •     TEDx promotes connections to people who are different. Participants tended to connect to men as much as they connected to women, regardless of their own gender, and they also tended to connect to people with interests different from their own.
  •     TEDx promotes equal participation. TEDx did not produce a network dominated by a small number of “superconnectors.” Instead it is very democratic, with more or less equal participation by everyone.
  •     TEDx promotes new connections. Nearly all of the “interesting” conversations at TEDx happened between people who were not already connected on Twitter before the event. This suggests that participants actively seek out conversations with people they do not already know.
  •     TEDx gets new people involved. The total number of participants who were connected to at least one other participant increased after the event. This means there are now a greater number of people who are involved in the network that TEDx helped to grow.
  •     TEDx doubles connectivity between participants. Ten weeks after the event, the average participant had twice as many connections to other participants than they had prior to the event.
  •     TEDx helps friends of friends connect. Participant social networks became much more interconnected after the event, as people also introduced their new friends to one another.
  •     TEDx increases reciprocity. The number of mutual relationships on Twitter (where each person “follows” the other) dramatically increased after the event, suggesting that TEDx helped to spur real-world, reciprocal social connections between participants.

Thus, overall the experiment suggested that TEDxSanDiego 2010 had an enduring effect on the social networks of participants, both online and probably offline as well.

About TEDxSanDiego
TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. TEDxSanDiego will be held on December 3, 2011 and focus on the theme “The World Within our Grasp.” From one person’s mind to hand to the world and back – this instantaneous feedback loop can challenge, inform, connect and changes everything. Key support comes from two of San Diego’s most innovative companies, Qualcomm and SHARP Healthcare. Also new this year is a TEDxKids event in November 2011. This will be a conference about kids, coordinated by kids and people who are passionate about empowering them. The goal is to connect the open-idea-sharing principles of TED with kids and those surrounding them. For more information or to nominate a speaker for TEDxSanDiego, visit

About TED
TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. Started as a four-day conference in California 26 years ago, TED has grown to support those world-changing ideas with multiple initiatives. At TED, the world’s leading thinkers and doers are asked to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes. Talks are then made available, free, at TED speakers have included Bill Gates, Jane Goodall, Elizabeth Gilbert, Sir Richard Branson, Benoit Mandelbrot, Philippe Starck, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Isabel Allende and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Two major TED events are held each year: The TED Conference takes place every spring in Long Beach, California (along with a parallel conference, TEDActive, in Palm Springs), and TEDGlobal is held each summer in Edinburgh, Scotland.

TED’s media initiatives include, where new TEDTalks are posted daily; the new TED Conversations, enabling broad conversations among TED fans; and the Open Translation Project, which provides subtitles and interactive transcripts as well as the ability for any TEDTalk to be translated by volunteers worldwide.

TED has established the annual TED Prize, where exceptional individuals with a wish to change the world are given the opportunity to put their wishes into action; TEDx, which offers individuals or groups a way to host local, self-organized events around the world; and the TED Fellows program, helping world-changing innovators from around the globe to become part of the TED community and, with its help, amplify the impact of their remarkable projects and activities.

TEDGlobal 2011, “The Stuff of Life,” will be held July 11-15, 2011, in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Follow TED on Twitter at, or on Facebook at

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Sarah Hardwick
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