A TIME.com column I wrote today with my husband, Nicholas Christakis:
We spent a tense hour last Monday checking Facebook and Twitter to account for all 400 of our students at Harvard College, several of whom had been running in the marathon and were close to the blast site. As heads of one of Harvard’s undergraduate residential “houses,” news of last Thursday’s MIT shooting also reached us within minutes (because one of our students happened to be on the school’s campus and texted us, “gun fire at MIT; somebody shot — all I know”). Word continued to spread at warp speed as reports of shootings and sirens were shared from the real-time police feed.
The social networks through which information flows may seem like a 21st-century phenomenon, but people have always lived their lives embedded in networks, ever since we emerged from the African savannah. And we have always had an astounding ability to cooperate that exists side-by-side with a depressing ability to kill. This past week in Boston, our new online world crystallized both of these age-old features of our humanity.
Over the course of a few hours, we watched a surreal game of Six Degrees of Separation unfold: we learned that our 18- and 20-year-old sons, independently, knew several people who’d hung out in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s house, gone to prom and played sports with him, and knew his teachers. Our students reported similarly eerie, yet banal, connections. A few knew him directly — the storied Cambridge Rindge and Latin School sends plenty of kids to Harvard each year — and one of our colleagues had been the younger Tsarnaev’s coach at one time, which was a particularly horrifying connection insofar as yet another one of our colleagues was the heartbroken sibling of a victim killed in the attack. Many in Cambridge discovered oddly specific but nevertheless tangential links to the suspects. And we all became aware of these perplexing bonds together, well before they appeared in the news, while sheltering in place under the governor’s order…