If you were asked to describe a social network how would you respond? Would you reference Facebook, Twitter, or other social media sites? Perhaps you’d list an organization you are a part of, such as a professional association. Or, you might have no idea how to describe a social network, but a vague idea that it has to do with relationships.

Which would be true.

At the most basic level, a social network is a group of actors (this could be corporations, groups, individuals, or so on) that are connected to one another in some way. We are all embedded in social networks. We are born into some, such as our families or countries. Others we choose, such as social groups. And still other social networks are dictated to us, such as social standing.

Social networks can be local or global; they can be physical and include those with whom we regularly have contact, but this might not necessarily always be the case. With disease outbreaks, these physical networks are particularly salient, as they can illuminate how illness spreads from one individual to another. Handwashing is a critical public health behavior because when people practice poor hygiene it doesn’t only impact themselves.

Rather, poor hygiene can put whole schools, communities, and regions at risk. The illnesses and diseases that can spread when people don’t wash their hands can quickly move through a whole social network or community.

As such, it takes everyone washing their hands at critical times to promote good public health.

Social networks can also be leveraged to help the vision of universal handwashing to become a reality. One way in which this occurs is through the development of social norms surrounding good hygiene. Social norms are rules that apply to certain situations. For example, a culture might have a social norm that you take your shoes off when you visit someone’s home. People abide by the rule if others do so and if the same is expected of them. These norms are created and governed by the social network. As such, instituting a norm of handwashing can be a powerful way to help make handwashing a habit.

In social networks there are some actors which are more highly regarded than others or better connected. These individuals and organizations can also play an important role in hygiene promotion as they can help to shape norms and create expectations of those in their wide social networks to adopt certain behaviors as social norms. In the fight against Ebola, for example, the Grand Imam of Guinea used his influence to promote behaviors, such as safe burial practices, that are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus.

We all exist within social networks. They can influence us, but we can also use them to influence others in a positive manner.

No matter what your role is, you can be an agent of change for better health by promoting good hygiene in your social networks, and reaching out to motivate those in other social networks to turn handwashing with soap into their network’s social norm too.

Read more about social norms and handwashing here. This post was inspired by a presentation given by Erin Gamble (ACDI/VOCA) and Nicole Fernandez (Georgetown University) discussing social network analysis at a meeting of the D.C.-based Comm4Dev Community of Practice.