As new college students arrive on campus, it seems that the nervous yet excited energy with which they take on the beginnings of campus life could probably power a small city. Typical freshmen behavior reminds me of something akin to a school of fish or a flock of birds; it’s so omnipresent in the first weeks of school, though, that they appear most like locusts swarming. The presence of one group seems to spontaneously create another huddle of orientation-group acquaintances or an entire dorm floor gathering.

In the natural world, the actual swarming behavior fundamentally derives from one locust influencing another. In other words, swarms of locusts are a type of social network with individual actions largely affected by collective behavior. Last month, researchers from Northwestern University and the Max Planck Institute in Germany analyzed a locust swarm network model and found that only at high densities would there be a collective direction to the locusts’ migrations. In other words, when more of the bugs move one way, the rest move similarly.

Though the bugs simply try to avoid being eaten by their neighbors, their behavior translates to human populations. People are constantly affected by collective behaviors like mass media and pop culture — the slightest political slant of an article or an edgy new song can have widespread influence on individuals.

On a smaller scale, the influence of collective behavior still exists. Typically, an individual’s everyday decisions and opinions strongly shape those of their friends or peers. A friend might rave about a new restaurant, and, indeed, one might be more likely to stop by for lunch with this recommendation — and even more likely to do so when more friends suggest it. Seemingly trivial behavioral adjustments, such as this one, constitute much of day-to-day life.

Mundane influences, however, can accumulate, resulting in more permanent, even life-threatening, effects. In a groundbreaking 2007 study, renowned social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler found that obesity is hugely influenced by social networks: One’s chances of becoming obese increase by 57 percent if one has an obese friend in a given time period, 40 percent for an obese sibling and 37 percent for an obese spouse.

Interestingly, the study also showed that geographic neighbors did not exhibit this in

fluential behavior. Their work therefore suggests that emotionally, not environmentally, close connections like family members deeply impact the way we live. However, the cumulative effect of weak ties, like the routine eating buddies, can be just as influential.

In college, students can create a highly individualized network of people, or “circle,” around them. There are those people you would risk your life for and then there are those you only text when you need the homework from the last class. Both extremes of connection types are valuable, depending on the context. Especially in today’s age of instant communication, the social network finds a home in Facebook, Twitter and most recently, Google Plus. Science writer Jonah Lehrer noted in an October 2010 blog post that Facebook focuses on social closeness, while Twitter emphasizes social similarity.

This idea makes sense, as Facebook’s popularity stems from its ability to allows us to track people we know. From an evolutionary self-preservation standpoint, it’s important to distinguish personally-significant information from nonessential information. Twitter, on the other hand, projects the power of weak ties — though I may follow Charlie Sheen and get all of his off-kilter updates, I do not actually know him.

In theory, Google Plus combines the best of both social networking worlds, in allowing users to create their own “circles” (aptly named as such). Google has innovatively created the circles so that users can filter strong connections from the weak ties and vice versa. We can enjoy the intimacy of a video chat with close friends or scroll through a list of what all of our acquaintances are buzzing about online. For new college students, creating a social network through the freshmen herd and online is one of the most important tasks they will face as they embark on the four-year odyssey that is college.

If college were actually anything like the actual “Odyssey,” the Ithaca for every student would be the network of people he or she leaves the university with. We all go to school to learn, but in what way? Choosing a major, taking certain classes and getting good grades all mean nothing without the friends, peers, teachers and others we meet along the way. On graduation day, you might not remember why it took a decade for Odysseus to get back to Ithaca from Troy, but you will remember who taught it to you. Upperclassmen should take a cue from their freshmen peers and figure out who should swarm around them.

Caitlin Gilbert is a junior in the College. THE CORTEXT appears every other Tuesday.

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