Networks are endlessly interesting. They shape the world around us like almost nothing else, yet we spend very little time thinking about them or recognizing the non-obvious ways effects they have on our world. Because we tend to think in bell curves, we get tricked by networks pretty often. For instance, we’ve all had the experience of feeling like everyone is talking about something when it turns out to be pretty self-contained to your little group. Well, some folks at USC have spent some time looking into just how networks create that illusion, which they call the majority illusion:
The majority illusion occurs when the most popular nodes are colored. Because these link to the greatest number of other nodes, they skew the view from the ground, as it were. That’s why this illusion is so closely linked to the friendship paradox.
Interestingly, the majority illusion can even show up when a node isn’t globally popular:
That might seem harmless when it comes to memes on Reddit or videos on YouTube. But it can have more insidious effects too. “Under some conditions, even a minority opinion can appear to be extremely popular locally,” say Lerman and co. That might explain how extreme views can sometimes spread so easily.
As with most things related to how ideas spread throughout networks, the more popular something is seems to be the only reliable indicator to how popular it will become.
A nice explanation of how creativity requires networks from Esko Kilpi:
To say that Thomas Edison invented electricity or that Albert Einstein discovered relativity is a popular, but misleading simplification. These breakthroughs would have been inconceivable without (1) the social and intellectual network that stimulated and advanced their thinking and (2) the people who recognized the value of their contributions and spread them further. A good, new idea is not automatically passed on. From this standpoint a lighted match does not cause a fire. Rather the fire took place because of a particular combination of elements of which the lighted match was one. One cannot be creative alone. These qualities are co-created in an active process of mutual recognition.
It reminds me a lot of scenius:
Scenius is like genius, only embedded in a scene rather than in genes. Brian Eno suggested the word to convey the extreme creativity that groups, places or “scenes” can occasionally generate. His actual definition is: “Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.”
In fact Kevin Kelly, who wrote the piece on scenius that Eno quote is from, specifically calls out mutual recognition (he calls it appreciation) as one of the five nuturing factors of scenius: “Mutual appreciation — Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.”
Interesting perspective from Fred Wilson on how Instagram is challenging the iPhone’s built in camera. His conclusion: “Clean, simple, networked, social, cross platform mobile apps will be the winning model in the mobile ecosystem and the OS vendors will not be able to maintain dominance with the default apps they ship with the OS.”
Facebook did a big study on how we find information and, not entirely surprisingly, our weak ties tend to give us stuff we wouldn’t otherwise run across. Nothing really shocking there, but, as Slate notes, the scale of the study was:
The other crucial thing about this study is that it is almost unthinkably enormous. At the time of the experiment, there were 500 million active users on Facebook. Bakshy’s experiment included 253 million of them and more than 75 million shared URLs, meaning that in total, the study observed nearly 1.2 billion instances in which someone was or was not presented with a certain link. This scale is unheard of in academic sociological studies, which usually involve hundreds or, at most, thousands of people communicating in ways that are far less trackable.