A recent study of Twitter finds that two new social paradoxes affect how users see and absorb content. Researchers at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Sciences Institute discovered that among Twitter users, these paradoxes lead to information overload and diminishing impact for content.
Before online social media networks, sociologists found that, on average, a person’s friends have more friends than they do. This counterintuitive notion, called the “friendship paradox,” is due to the overrepresentation of extremely popular individuals in the average of friends. This paradox holds true for over 98% of Twitter users and researchers have now discovered two new surprising social paradoxes.
On average, a Twitter user’s friends tweet more often than they do (“activity paradox”) and share more popular content than they do (“virality paradox”). Because users’ friends are more active and send more popular content, users may have difficulty accurately judging how interesting they are relative to their ‘real’ friends – everyone else seems to be much better connected and clued in! In addition, the combination of these paradoxes means that as users follow more friends on Twitter, the volume of new information they receive grows even more quickly. That is, users who double their number of friends will receive more than twice the number of tweets, overloading them with more content than they are able to absorb. This overload diminishes the impact of content, and means users are then more likely to miss tweets by ‘real’ friends and will see information only after it is already widely known.
“The more people you follow, the more and more information you will receive,” says Dr. Kristina Lerman, Research Associate Professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and Project Leader at the USC Information Sciences Institute and an author of the study. “However, your ability to digest new information is limited. As a result, you will miss important updates from friends, and risk being the last one of your friends to know about things.”
These paradoxes have significant implications for active users who rely on Twitter to keep up with friends and spread information to their followers. As social media networks like Twitter grow and users find more friends, celebrities and organizations to follow, the more intense the competition for followers’ attention will become.
“Users will need to take care to remember that these paradoxes exist,” says Dr. Nathan Hodas, postdoctoral research associate at the USC Information Sciences Institute and lead author of the study. “Otherwise, they risk being drowned in the deluge of information, caught in a potentially frustrating world where their friends seem more interesting than they really are.”
In order to absorb the content in their Twitter feeds, users will have to be more selective about whom they follow. Conversely, to make themselves heard above the noise, users will either have to drown out the competition, exacerbating the problem, or find direct paths to users with the fewest friends—those who are most likely to see information in their feed and absorb it.
The study will be presented at the AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media and be published online on Apr. 15. The researchers who conducted the study are affiliated with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Sciences Institute.