A carefully controlled study of influence on Facebook has revealed some surprising trends: Men are more influential on the social network than women, and married people are the most influential of all. The most susceptible to influence? Those reporting their relationship status as “It’s Complicated,” a group that also had little luck influencing others.
The report, published online Thursday by the journal Science, tracked the success people had in convincing others to use a Facebook application that allows users to share information about movies. The study was designed so that when a participant used the service, a message was sent to a random selection of their friends asking them to join as well. By randomizing who got a message, the study authors avoided a common bias in the study of social networks and influence — the similarities between groups that share connections, a trait called “homophily.”
An initial 7,730 users sent 41,686 messages to friends. Those messages were tied to a 13% increase in the use of the app, suggesting that peer influence can play a significant role on Facebook.
But the meat of the study compared the relative influence of different groups: those of different ages, genders, and relationship statuses. According to the study, men were 49% more influential than women, and single people were 113% more influential than those who were “In a relationship.” But once those users graduated to married status, they became the most influential group of all, trumping both singles and people in relationships.
And if you’re thinking about starting a career as a politician, you might want to get to know people who mark their relationship status as “It’s complicated,” since they were found to be the most susceptible to influence. (They also were the least influential people in the study.)
The researchers, Sinan Aral and Dylan Walker of NYU’s Stern School of Business, also discovered that influential people cluster in a network, suggesting that targeting them may have a “multiplier effect.” But the researchers also found that highly influential people also tend to have peers who are not particularly susceptible to influence, making the outcome of such targeting unclear.
The study suggests that targeting people with certain characteristics — such as men who are married — may pay off for marketers, but only if they can get such influential people to spread the word to people who are susceptible, like members of the “It’s complicated” group. Because the study focuses on the spread of a particular product, it is not yet clear whether the results can be generalized. Would older, married men remain so influential if the product were Disney -- or Justin Bieber-related? The researchers doubt it, writing that their results “are not conclusions about who is more or less influential in general.”
Instead, the researchers say, their study demonstrates a powerful new method to investigate the spread of any product on a social network like Facebook, rather than a set of results to apply to any situation.
As with most scientific findings, it’s complicated.