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Green Templeton College | Oxford

Professor Felix Reed-TsochasA new study suggests that Facebook users select apps on the basis of what their friends have recently adopted, rather than using Facebook's equivalent of a 'best-seller' list of apps.

Researchers from the University of Limerick, the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Oxford - including GTC Fellow Professor Felix Reed-Tsochas, James Martin Lecturer in Complex Systems at the Saïd Business School and Director of Complexity Economics at the Institute for New Economic Thinking - have developed a mathematical model to examine online social networks, in particular the trade-off between copying our friends and relying on 'best-seller' lists.

The research team created a mathematical model to look at how Facebook users are influenced in the choice of apps that they install on their Facebook pages.

They discovered that users tended to be swayed by recent activity from their Facebook 'friends' that appeared on their Facebook feeds over the previous couple of days, demonstrating that the 'copycat' tendency in human behaviour is strong and that we can be 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 this latest study, a specially-developed mathematical distinguished between the consequences of two competing mechanisms that appeared to drive the behaviour of the Facebook users.

Using their model and computer simulations, they looked at whether Facebook users' behaviour could be modelled as being influenced primarily by the notifications of apps recently installed on their friends' Facebook pages or mainly driven by which apps appeared on the best-seller list.

Supercomputers ran thousands of simulations in which the relative dominance of the two influences (recent installations versus cumulative popularity) were varied and the team then spent 15,000 hours computer processing to best match the results of the simulations with the characteristics of app installation that were observed in the earlier empirical study.

Results show that users seem to be influenced by both recent installations versus best seller lists, the stronger effect on popularity dynamics was caused by the recent behaviour of others. The best-seller list did have a 'mild' effect on the behaviour of Facebook users, but an instinct to copy the behaviour of others was by far the more dominant instinct.

Felix Reed-Tsochas comments: "We have used sophisticated modelling techniques to show how it is possible to tease apart different causal mechanisms that underpin behaviour even when the empirical data are purely observational.

"This is significant because the assumption these days is that only experimental research designs can provide such answers. Here, we found that the 'copycat' tendency plays a very important role in online behaviour. This might be because users need to make quick decisions in information-rich environments, but other research has identified similar imitative behaviour in the off-line world."

The other authors of the new study are: Professor James Gleeson and Dr Davide Cellai (University of Limerick); Associate Professor Mason Porter (University of Oxford) and Assistant Professor Jukka-Pekka Onnela (Harvard).

The paper, 'A simple generative model of collective online behavior', by James P Gleeson. Davide Cellai, Jukka-Pekka Onnela, Mason A Porter and Felix Reed-Tsochas will be published by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

  Download the PNAS paper