dwatts_big.jpgThe Basics
Age and occupation. 33 and professor of sociology, Columbia University. How long have you lived here? Almost 4 years; 5 if you count the one year I spent here as a post-doc researcher 1997-1998. Where did you come from, and where do you live now? Boston, and Santa Fe, NM, before that. Originally moved to the US (from Australia) in 1993 for grad school at Cornell. Right now I live in Morningside Heights, near Columbia.

Three for You
1. You wrote "Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age" as an academic dissection of social network theory, which thanks in large part to the Internet has been the hot topic among sociologists and people trolling for online dates the past couple years. What's the major point you're trying to make with all of this?
The main point is that many of the interesting features of the social world, from the spread of disease and cultural fads, to the way organizations solve problems, to individuals finding a job or a love interest, depend on people interacting with each other. And the language of interactions is networks. So in order to understand phenomena like evolving social norms, or cultural beliefs, or epidemics of disease, or trends in fashion, we have to understand social networks--both their structure, and also how they impact behavior. Sociologists have been thinking about networks for several decades now, but recently lots of other kinds of scientists have been getting interested, mostly because of the Internet and also because computers have finally gotten fast enough to help with the mathematics. So there has been an explosion of activity in network-related research in the past several years, with papers appearing at the rate of one a day. The book is partly about some of this research--the history, and also the recent stuff that I have been involved with--and partly about why and how its relevant to some of the big questions in social science.

2. Last summer, sites like Friendster introduced social networking to people bored at work. Currently we are seeing services like Dodgeball.com move social networking from the desktop to the streets using cellphones to help people find out who and what's nearby. How do you expect mobile devices to expand or re-define concepts of social networking?
I'm not sure how much of an effect these sites will ultimately have, but I think their impact will be more subtle than their creators imagine. The promise of all these sites is that they make it easier for people to interact. So to the extent that people do not interact with people they might otherwise want to interact with simply because the physical world makes it inconvenient to do so, then I expect that these sites will have the effect they were intended to. For example, people who use online dating sites appear to be having more sex than people who don't, because its easier to solicit sex, or to signal that you want to be solicited, via the internet than it is walking down the street.

But there are lots of costs associated with social interactions that are not merely about the convenience of meeting people, and to the extent that those costs are relevant, the changes might be harder to anticipate. For example, it's not clear to me that people who meet each other on-line end up having happier relationships than those who meet each other off-line. Because having a happy relationship is more than simply having lots of other people to choose from--in fact, that may even make things harder. One of the reasons why people have such a hard time settling down in New York is that one is always subjected to a tantalizing array of just-out-of-reach possibilities. It's impossible even to walk down the street without seeing someone who might be more desirable than whoever you're currently dating. Now imagine extending that constant possibility of meeting someone else to everyone, all the time--someone better may be just an email away. Is that going to make people happier? Probably not. In which case the correct response might be to stop looking once you find someone who is simply acceptable--precisely what most people do already. And there are lots of other complications. At the end of the day, I suspect that these sites will end up serving a valid service for a limited pool of people--those for whom meeting someone is difficult primarily for logistical reasons. But they're not going to revolutionize dating, or social networking.

3. Reliable sources reveal: you're a certified hunk, a Columbia professor at a ridiculously young age, and your (subsidized) apartment has one of the biggest terraces in Manhattan. Could you be any more obnoxious?
Yes, I'm also Australian.

Proust-Krucoff Questionnaire
What's your New York motto?
New York is a city that meets you on any level.

9pm, Wednesday - what are you doing?
Wednesday's supposed to be a rest night, so hopefully I am just getting home from the gym, and having a pre-dinner drink (see medication) out on the deck. Yes, I have a deck.

Best celebrity sighting in New York, or personal experience with one if you're that type.
I've met Alan Alda once or twice, because as luck would have it, he's actually extremely interested in science, and is, as a result, a friend of my old graduate school advisor. The first time I met him, several years ago, I was reasonably nervous, as I had been a fan of M*A*S*H (one of the only TV shows I ever watched, actually), and didn't quite know what to say to him. The problem quickly disappeared, however, as he instantly started grilling me about my work. So even if I had thought it appropriate, it would have been very hard to turn the conversation around to him. And I've had the same experience with him subsequently, even when I wasn't so nervous. He's incredibly disarming actually--he makes you feel like you're the star and he's just happy to be talking to you-- and one of the nicest people you could hope to meet.

Describe that low, low moment when you thought you just might have to leave NYC for good.
Hasn't happened.

Just after midnight on a Saturday - what are you doing?
Finding a place to spend the next two hours so I don't have to fight everyone south of 14th Street for a cab.

What's the most expensive thing in your wardrobe?
That damn suit I had to buy for my sister's wedding, and that I've worn about three times since.

Where do you summer?
Here as much as possible, but occasionally I'm forced to go to Europe or Australia. Ghastly, I know.

What was your best dining experience in NYC?
Probably soon after I moved here (the first time) when my friend Allison and I wanted to go to Raoul's in SoHo, and couldn't get a reservation until 11pm. For a country boy, this seemed outrageously late, but it we ended up having a great time, probably in part because we spent about 3 hours at a bar up the street before, in part because the waiter comp'd us an extra bottle of wine (much nicer than what we had ordered), and of course in part because it's also a great
restaurant. We stayed until 2am.

Medication: What and how much do you take?
Bombay Sapphire. One before dinner, with tonic and twist of lime.

If you could change one thing about New York, what would it be?
August.


Read more about Duncan Watts and his work at Columbia's Collective Dynamics Group.