If you read nothing else, check out the last para: "If we keep seeing the same links and catchphrases ricocheting around our social networks, it might mean we are being exposed only to what we want to hear...You might say to yourself: ‘I am in a group where I am not getting any views other than the ones I agree with. I’m curious to know what else is out there,’”
A message here for narrowly-focused campaign groups and the limitations of over-specialisation. Serendipity and trusted referrals can broaden your knowledge and enable you to discover new perspectives around your core interests.
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Hashtags — the community-driven shorthand used to identify conversation themes — like “icantdateyou” and “worstpickuplines” were vastly more popular a few days ago than ones like “Egyptians” or “jan25,” a reference to Day 1 of the Egyptian protests. In just one hour last Tuesday, “icantdateyou” racked up nearly 274,000 mentions on Twitter, with posts like “icantdateyou if all you wanna do is fuss” and “icantdateyou if you look like your brother.”
Alas, poor “Mubarak” rated fewer than 11,000 during the same hour. (Many Egyptians could not post on Twitter because their government had temporarily cut off most Internet and cellphone service.)
Sure, many of us are more inclined to toss off frivolous posts than politically charged ones. But a new study of hashtags offers some insight into how and why some topics become popular quickly online while others don’t.
People generally pass on the latest conversational idioms — like “cantlivewithout” or “dontyouhate” — the first few times they see them on Twitter, or they never adopt them at all, according to the study by computer scientists. The researchers analyzed the 500 most popular hashtags among more than three billion messages posted on Twitter from August 2009 to January 2010.
“Idioms are like a sugar rush,” explains Jon Kleinberg, a professor of computer science at Cornell and a co-author of the study. “You see it once, you either use it or you don’t, but the rush wears off.”
More contentious themes like politics take longer to catch on, the researchers found. People tend to wait until they have seen a more polarizing phrase — like “sarahpalin” or “hcr,” short for health care reform — four, five or six times on Twitter before posting it themselves.
We already know that people often influence one another’s behavior. That is the monkey-see-monkey-do premise behind advertising. And it may seem intuitive that different kinds of information spread differently on the Web.
Now, however, researchers at Cornell and a few other universities like Stanford are finding patterns in the way information catches on in cyberspace. Their models could be useful for politicians, social activists, news organizations, marketers, public relations teams and anyone else trying to reach their target audience — or market.
It turns out that the way information spreads online is often more complicated than viral transmission, in which one person passes a link to, say, a YouTube video directly to another person. As with political topics, people often wait until a number of friends or trusted sources have promoted an idea before promulgating it themselves.
The structure of a social network — for example, whether it is made up of close friends and colleagues or of like-minded strangers who follow Lady Gaga — can have more influence than the size of a group, researchers say.
In real-world terms, that means designers of iPhone apps may be better off trying to get a plug from a leading technology blogger than from Ashton Kutcher, even though Mr. Kutcher has more than six million followers on Twitter. A smaller, more connected network might be more likely to respond to a recommendation from one of its own valued members, says Jure Leskovec, an assistant professor of computer science at Stanford.
In one recent study, for example, Professor Leskovec and a colleague analyzed a set of more than 170 million blog posts and news articles over a one-year period. They identified the thousand most popular phrases in the material and examined how those phrases spread over time via news agencies, newspapers, television and blogs. Content from news agencies tended to spike and gain the most attention immediately, while news that started on blogs or was picked up by bloggers often experienced several peaks or rebounds in popularity as time wore on.
An earlier Stanford study found that bloggers, over time, had more influence than mainstream publications in areas like technology or entertainment.
Professor Leskovec says the studies provide a quantitative way to predict which stories will hold attention and which will fade rapidly, based on who covers the material first. In a few years, he says, “we will be at the stage where marketers will be more mathematical and less intuition-driven.”
The research seems to validate the techniques that many industry experts are already using, says Sunil Gupta, a professor at the Harvard Business School who teaches digital marketing. Marketers are moving from an intrusion strategy of running ads in the middle of TV programs to a more cooperative model in which they try to stimulate discussion across social networks. Automakers that loan next year’s car models to influential car bloggers to test drive are just one example, he says.
“In the traditional world, marketing used to focus on the middle part of the bell curve and reaching out to them,” Professor Gupta says. “Now, the way to reach out to the middle part is through the extreme ends of the curve.” Those extremes, he says, include vocal detractors as well as ardent fans.
But the leaders of online packs aren’t necessarily happy about being emulated, he found in a 2009 study of Cyworld, a social networking site in South Korea where millions of members can buy virtual décor for their home pages.
He found that its members of middling status — having a modest number of social connections — bought more products based on friends’ purchases. But the most active, most connected users made fewer purchases. In other words, influencers value their uniqueness and often resist peer influence.
SO what does all this mean for you and me?
If we keep seeing the same links and catchphrases ricocheting around our social networks, it might mean we are being exposed only to what we want to hear, says Damon Centola, an assistant professor of economic sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“You might say to yourself: ‘I am in a group where I am not getting any views other than the ones I agree with. I’m curious to know what else is out there,’” Professor Centola says.
Consider a new hashtag: diversity.