April 24, 2017

Connective recovery in social networks after the death of a friend

Nature Human Behavior

By: William Hobbs, Moira Burke


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.