Facebook Maps How Social Change Flows Through Social Networks
Facebook claims that they were not running a test this last week with an intern-created feature that allowed users to easily change their profile image on the network to show their support/enthusiasm for last week’s Supreme Court decision by same sex-marriage. It’s probably true and just a coincidence that they just recently published a story on network analysis of a very similar show of profile support in 2013 with red equals signs for the Human Rights Campaign:
To test these competing hypotheses and develop a new model for how solidarity spreads from person to person, Facebook’s researchers classified profile images from over 3 million users in March 2013, along with 106 million users who were exposed to those changed profiles. Next, they predicted the likelihood of someone changing their profile to an equality image, depending on how many friends they had seen make the change. State and Adamic found that while someone’s likelihood to participate varied based on several factors—a person’s political affiliations, religion, and age, for example—the likelihood to change one’s profile image was greater with more exposures to changes by friends. According to State and Adamic, this likelihood increased “only for the first six exposures.” After the sixth exposure, the relationship “becomes virtually flat.”
But the surprising thing is that profile-image changes don’t seem to move across networks the way, say, a viral cat video might. State and Adamic found a profound difference between how most information spreads on Facebook and the adoption of the marriage equality profile images. While users are quick to share funny pictures and text, the influence of a typical meme on individuals doesn’t build over time. But with the marriage-equality profile images in March 2013, users apparently needed “social proof”—they needed to see that others also supported marriage equality—before joining in. As more people changed their profiles, individuals who had seen their friends change their photos were more likely to do the same themselves.
This is an interesting look at how social change campaigns flow through an online social network. Are efforts like changing one’s profile simply low-level “slacktivism” with no real impact on the world, or do these efforts help to shift social perception? I believe they do matter, especially in causes that entail shifts of social norms.
Whether Facebook did it did not engineer last week’s feature as another of its famous psychological experiments is something we’ll probably never learn. Social change campaigns matter a lot to people on Facebook, and are some of the most important content flowing through the network for a number of people. My guess is that that is why Facebook is trying to understand this.
As someone who used to spend a lot of time working on online social change initiatives, I believe that what the company learns here — and what they do with that knowledge is going to matter a lot to society.