Research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) could provide insights for technologists designing the next wave of social networks.
The two-year study spearheaded by Damon Centola, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, suggests that events on social networks can change behavior for health-related practices, but digging deeper into the findings appears to reveal much more.
The study set out to determine whether linking the same people in groups through social networks and the Web could affect diffusion dynamics, depending on how people connect with each other. It turns out that it does. Dynamics make a significant difference on how information spreads, according to Centola.
To study the difference that a social network makes, Centola developed and ran a series of experiments using an Internet-based health community where people could rate information and share it with friends. Two groups were created, each relying on the same people to influence events, but the friends connected to each other in different ways.
The 1,528 people in the study had anonymous online profiles and a series of health interests. Centola matched them with other participants who shared the same interests, calling them "health buddies." Participants received e-mail updates notifying them about activities of their health buddies. When friends of friends clicked on the form, their friends would be notified, too. Centola says that how far and fast the information spread depended on how people were connected.
Overall, 54% people in clustered networks registered for the health forum, compared with 38% in the networks oriented around longer ties. The rate of adoption in the clustered networks proved to be four times as fast. People were more likely to participate regularly in the health forum if they had more health buddies who registered. Only 15% of forum participants with one friend in the forum returned to it, but more than 30% of subjects with two friends returned to it, and more than 40% with three friends in the forum made repeat visits. It's clear from this study that influencers affect the spread of information -- something that Forrester Research Analysts Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler explain in the book titled "Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, and Transform Your Business."
Structure makes the difference, but longer ties that lead across the social space make the world smaller and make it easier to spread information faster, Centola says. The study finds that the structure of the population make a difference in the way information spreads.
While connections spread information, does the spread of information actually influence behavior? "The networks that make information spread more quickly actually make behavior spread more slowly," Centola says.
The findings have important implications for the health industry and also shed light for those designing features for online social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and other online communities. These findings could influence the way that social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn design future features to online communities. They provide insights on targeting different groups of people in advertising campaigns and how certain types of populations, depending on the structure, could become more of an influence in friends and family networks. These networks could become more effective in the adoption of certain products.
While Centola did not design the study for marketers, it's easy to see how a cluster of connected networks or communities could facilitate the spread of a new product adoption. It also identifies how marketers could target specific clusters of the population.