Innovative analysis of social networks sheds new light on consumer behaviour

12 October 2010

© Facebook

A new study by James Martin Lecturer Dr Felix Reed-Tsochas shows that consumers have a herding instinct to follow the crowd when it comes to buying popular products. However, this instinct appears to switch off almost entirely if the product fails to achieve a certain popularity threshold. The study, published in this week’s PNAS journal (11th October), is based on an analysis of how millions of Facebook users adopted software, known as apps, to personalise their Facebook pages.

Reed-Tsochas, who is based at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, worked with colleagues to analyse data that tracked 100 million installations of apps adopted by Facebook users over two months in 2007. The data allowed researchers to observe on an hourly basis the rate at which 2,700 apps were installed by 50 million Facebook users. They discovered that once an app had reached a rate of about 55 installations a day, its popularity then soared to reach stellar proportions.

Reed-Tsochas said: “Our analysis reveals a very interesting new finding. Users only appear to be influenced by the choices of other users above a certain level of popularity, and at that point popularity drives future popularity.”

The study points out that its observations have implications for the online world concluding that while some books and films are highly advertised by their producers, that element appears to play only a small role in a product’s popularity. The majority of books and films are exposed to the forces of social influence which can be highly unpredictable. Online book retailer Amazon and the online DVD rental service Netflix already allow their users to rate the products and, as a consequence, influence their future popularity.

Dr Reed-Tsochas commented: “There has been a lot of research into the spread of ideas and products. Previously, we have only been able to track the spread of successful innovations, and then only among a small set of potential users. Our research in the virtual world of online social networks is the equivalent to moving from a fixed telescope that lets us view a restricted number of stars to having a complete map of all the stars in the universe.”

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