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Why It Actually Really Matters Who You Follow Online

Ever wondered how things can spread so quickly online? How certain ideas, images, phrases, or memes can spread like wildfire, even though their quality doesn't seem to be better - at least, not significantly - than other ideas/images/phrases/memes?

So did some social psychologists and researchers. They started looking into what might cause certain things to spread quickly across networks. What they found is a strange phenomenon that occurs on social networks called the majority illusion.

A recent article by MIT Technology Review showed how the majority illusion can make it seem like an idea, image or trend is really common online, when actually it's really rare (h/t to my mom for sharing this article).

To explain how it works, it helps to understand another strange social happening: the friendship paradox. On average, your friends will have more friends than you do.

The article explains it pretty clearly:

"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...In this case, the “average” is a poor way to capture this data set.

On average, your coauthors will be cited more often than you, and the people you follow on Twitter will post more frequently than you, and so on."

So the next time you get online and you feel like everyone is having more fun, partying with more friends, going on more trips and having more adventures than you, don't worry - you're not alone. Even if they are doing more and different things, they're probably having those exact same feelings, too. The friendship paradox is just the way it works!

The related majority illusion says that an individual can observe a behavior or trend in their group that is actually really rare in the group as a whole. All that is required for that idea/activity/image/opinion to spread is for a couple of high-influencing people to become early adopters. So it can be easy to feel like "everyone else is doing/seeing/getting it," even when that's not really happening.

The majority illusion can be similarly problematic.

It can normalize negative or harmful behavior and language, and can allow extreme opinions to spread quickly. As Sarah said in a recent conversation, it's almost like digital peer pressure.

To take this idea one step further, consider the fact that not only are the high-influencers having a disproportionate influence on the group as a whole, we're also seeing a filtered version of their reality. We're not just seeing the prettiest people doing the coolest things, we're seeing the prettiest people doing the coolest things in the most curated and attractive way they can possibly present themselves. Are we the only ones who think this can fuel perceptions of inadequacy?

Even if we know that this digital reality isn't "real," it is still highly influential.

The fantastic flip side of this is that any idea can spread this way! If the influencerati share and support positive ideas, initiatives, and images, those can become widely popular, too.

It's an empowering idea: as the article says, we can all be considered influencers. While it's super important that we surround ourselves with positivity, it's incredibly important for the health of the group that we stand for it and share it as individuals, too.

This post was originally published over on BYOM.

Kinsey SullivanComment