New Research Sheds Light on How News Spreads Online

Breakthrough Identifies Roles of Influencers and Paves the way for Further Study

A story in the New York Times recently caught my attention. The simple title Why Some Twitter Posts Catch on and Others Don't, seemed to promise an article that would finally answer the question that plagues most PR people at one time or another; namely, "why does one client or news item seem to get more attention and sharing than others?" (Of course, this question is usually followed by "how can I ensure that my news gets the most sharing and exposure?").

Interest in these types of questions led me to the field of memetics years ago. Memetics is the science that seeks to explain how ideas spread.  It says that the heartiest units of information, or "memes," catch on, and are passed along from person to person (helping to define and shape cutlure); while the weaker ones are quickly discarded and forgotten. Call it information Darwinism, if you will.

However, after reading several books on memetics, and struggling with how to apply the theory, I concluded that it is more of a soft than a hard science (or a pseudo science, some say). I have written a number of blog posts on related topics (see my Interview with Doug Rushkoff and Memes Gone Wild).

The TImes article cited above offered some very useful information, and led me down a path that helped me better understand advances in the study of how information spreads across social networks. I interviewed Jure Leskovec of Stanford, one of the researchers behind a paper quoted in the article.

Below, I share some excerpts from the Times article that I found to be interesting, and, in a series of posts over the next few days will blog more about what I learned from the interview with Jure.

…researchers at Cornell and a few other universities like Stanford are finding patterns in the way information catches on in cyberspace…

The structure of a social network … can have more influence than the size of a group, researchers say…

An earlier Stanford study found that bloggers, over time, had more influence than mainstream publications in areas like technology or entertainment.

…the way information spreads online is often more complicated than viral transmission, in which one person passes a link to, say, a YouTube video directly to another person. As with political topics, people often wait until a number of friends or trusted sources have promoted an idea before promulgating it themselves.

…Content from news agencies tended to spike and gain the most attention immediately, while news that started on blogs or was picked up by bloggers often experienced several peaks or rebounds in popularity as time wore on.

Professor Leskovec says the studies provide a quantitative way to predict which stories will hold attention and which will fade rapidly, based on who covers the material first. In a few years, he says, “we will be at the stage where marketers will be more mathematical and less intuition-driven…"

Clearly, this was a topic that begged further exploration. I wanted to understand (and help my readers better understand) how online influence works, who is most influential for different types of news (with tech being the area that is nearest and dearest), and what we can learn to help us get the best possible visibility for our news.

Stay tuned and read the next in my series for more on this.

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