Sorry, ladies: all that talk of women ruling social media appears to have been debunked by researchers from New York University.
The research supporting “dude-fluence”
In their study “Identifying Influential and Susceptible Members of Social Networks” (published in the July 2012 publication of Science), NYU Professors Sinan Aral and Dylan Walker used a contagion model to measure social media influence of a randomized sample of Facebook users. The set-up of the study was relatively straightforward: the researchers used a pool of randomized Facebook users and had them send messages to a randomized group of their friends. They measured how many were influenced by the note to download a movie app. Their statistical treatment of the data is far more sophisticated than I could competently discuss, but it provided some pretty startling conclusions. Key findings from the study (from the NYU press release):
- Men are more influential than women
- Women influence men more than they influence other women
- Older people (30+ years) are more influential and less susceptible to influence than younger people
- Married people are the least susceptible to influence in the decision to adopt the product they studied
- Influence and susceptibility trade off, meaning people who were more influential tended not to be susceptible to influence and people who were susceptible tended not to be influential
- Some people are clearly more influential than others and are themselves connected to other highly influential people, giving them the potential to be ‘super-spreaders’
Did men finally get some social media props?
Kind of. There are a lot of variables that could have had an impact on this study, though.
The study was done on Facebook in a year (2009) when Facebook’s user pool increased by nearly 248 million users to 680 million. A representative sample of Facebook users in that time period would include more than a third that were new users. It also is questionable whether influence by gender or age would be different on a different social media platform.
It was also done using an application specific to movies. Although movie viewing by gender is consistent with the general population (51% female, 49% male), there is possibility that an application like that could be more attractive to users of a specific gender or age.
The number of actions informing their conclusions are relatively small (666 actions on 69,980 impressions in a preliminary release of the study’s findings). So even with the care they took to randomize the study there is potential for some sampling error.
Finally, Techcrunch published an article when this research was released entitled, “Dear Klout, This Is How You Measure Influence.” The premise was that Klout could learn lessons about sensing influence from this study. This underpins another potential problems with the study: specifically that research like this has to be highly controlled. Where Klout has to make sense of multiple behaviors on multiple platforms, this research is based upon on one specific action within a small group.
What are the ramifications of these results?
There are two things that are important to bear in mind with this study.
First, it is just one study. These results should be replicated in a few different studies before they influence anyone’s social media strategy. Particularly as counterintuitive as the results are to conventional wisdom.
Second, these conclusions are based upon sound research. In order for a study like this to be published it needs to be peer-reviewed and scrutinized. While our personal experience is important to inform our decisions, failing to accept the possibility that some or all of these conclusions are accurate could disadvantage our adaptive capability for the future.
I suspect that the results of this study are not representative of social media influence (I think women drive a large part of activity and thus “influence” on most social networks). But if I’m wrong – how great is it to be me? I’m the right gender and the right age to be a social media influencer. That and five bucks will buy me a cup of coffee.