One of the curious things about social networks is the way that some messages, pictures, or ideas can spread like wildfire while others that seem just as catchy or interesting barely register at all. The content itself cannot be the source of this difference. Instead, there must be some property of the network that changes to allow some ideas to spread but not others.
Today, we get an insight into why this happens thanks to the work of Kristina Lerman and pals at the University of Southern California. These people have discovered an extraordinary illusion associated with social networks which can play tricks on the mind and explain everything from why some ideas become popular quickly to how risky or antisocial behavior can spread so easily.
Network scientists have known about the paradoxical nature of social networks for some time. The most famous example is the friendship paradox: on average your friends will have more friends than you do.
This comes about because the distribution of friends on social networks follows a power law. So while most people will have a small number of friends, a few individuals have huge numbers of friends. And these people skew the average.
Here’s an analogy. If you measure the height of all your male friends. you’ll find that the average is about 170 centimeters. If you are male, on average, your friends will be about the same height as you are. Indeed, the mathematical notion of “average” is a good way to capture the nature of this data.