How can you explain the success of a piece of information circulating online, apart from its intrinsic interest and the reputation and influencing power of the person who posted it? Recent research indicates that timing is crucial and that the existence of subject-based relationships outside the social friends’ network also plays an important role.

Timing Plus Interactions Outside Friends Network Determine Viral Success of Online Stories

While an online user’s personal network may well be influential in the circulation of information on the Internet, this isn’t necessarily a universal truth which holds good for all online social networks. A study from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands*, carried out over several years on millions of data files taken from the New York-based social news aggregator site, found that “in only about 50% of stories that became popular… (do) we find evidence that social ties among users were a critical ingredient in the successful spread.” Moreover, users who are close geographically and have overlapping interests react on average with a probability of only 2% to information propagated and received from friends.  In fact the Delft team suggest that in terms of the criteria which influence the popularity of a news item or story, “friends are overrated.” They found that “timing and alignment between user activities, and the existence of additional relationships outside social friendships” were crucial factors.

Logical network topology

Analysis of the Digg data revealed that there was a less than 12% probability of two users, A  and B, who show almost identical behaviour patterns – i.e. where 95% of users A’s positive comments on a news item (known as ‘diggs’) are mirrored by user B – actually being friends. This led the researchers to conclude that there is also what they call a “logical network topology”, which is “characterised by specific semantics on top of the underlying social media platform.” This basically means there are users who engage in community building; they exhibit similar behaviour on the website without being connected at the personal level. The study takes the example of the ‘Digg Patriots’, a group of 102 out of the 2.2 million users of in 2010, who coordinated their approval (‘digging’) of stories, with the aim of “gaming the promotional algorithm” so as to push those items on to the front page of the Digg site.

New content displaces old within a short timeframe

Given the large number of news items continuously being submitted to the website, and the fact that they are displaced by new material over a very short period of time, it turns out that 70% of the stories visible to user A are already outside user B’s ‘attention window’ just six hours later. This proves that time is an inescapable factor influencing the longevity of information content on the Internet. Moreover, despite a general assumption among many commentators that social networks have a major impact on viral information spread, phenomena external to the social network may well have a strong impact. The researchers presented a group of non-experts with the title, description, image and type of story of the 158 most successful stories promoted during the last year, and asked them to rate the general importance and their own personal interest in the items. The survey results showed that “the differentiation in the promotion process of stories was a direct result of how important and relevant the participants rated the topic of a particular story”.    


*“Are Friends Overrated?” - A Study for the Social News Aggregator by Christian Doerr, Norbert Blenn, Siyu Tang and Piet Van Mieghem