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Researchers have developed a mathematical model to examine online social networks, in particular the trade-off between copying what friends download and relying on ‘best-seller’ lists.

Mathematical model illustrates our online copycat behaviour

The researchers from the University of Oxford, the University of Limerick, and the Harvard School of Public Health looked at how we are influenced in the choice of apps we download on our Facebook pages by creating a mathematical model to capture the dynamics at play. They found that Facebook users' choice of app was more influenced by friends' behaviour than by seeing Facebook’s equivalent of best-seller lists. The model suggests users tended to be swayed by activity on their friends' Facebook pages viewed on their Facebook feeds over the previous couple of days. The research, published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that there is a strong 'copycat' tendency in human behaviour and we are influenced by the activities of others over a relatively short period of time.

The mathematical model examined data from an empirical study published in 2010, which had tracked 100 million installations of apps adopted by Facebook users during two months. In the 2010 study, based on data collected in 2007, all Facebook users could see a list of the most popular apps (similar to best-seller lists) on their pages, and were also notified about their friends’ recent app installations. In the 2010 study (which included two of the authors of the new study), researchers found that in some cases, users were virtually unaffected by the activities of others, whereas sometimes they were strongly affected – even though the apps in both these categories did not appear to be distinguished by any particular characteristics. Instead, once an app reached some popularity threshold (as measured by the installation rate), its popularity tended to rise to stellar proportions.


Read more on the University website