Media & Entertainment

Harvard Study: Social Networks Do Little To Influence Taste And Interests

Comment

Here’s a bit of science that’s contrary to what a heavy utilizer of social networks might expect. Researchers at Harvard tracked the Facebook activity of hundreds of college students for four years, and came away with the rather unexpected result that the interests of friends don’t, in fact, tend to influence one another. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen at all, of course, but it’s clear that propagation and virality are subtler and more complex than some people (marketers and, I suspect, researchers) tend to think they are.

But the study is also clearly flawed in ways that those versed in social graphs are likely to easily perceive. Pulling useful data from social networks is like catching lightning in a bottle, and I wonder whether the findings may in fact be, as the study attempts to avoid, “a spurious consequence of alternative social processes.”

The central source of data for the study, in fact, doesn’t strike me as solid. Tracking the interests of college kids is a sketchy endeavor in and of itself, but tracking it via their Facebook favorites (i.e. what shows on your profile, not what you post about or share) seems unreliable.

After all, not only does everyone use the network in their own way, but the network itself has changed. Putting Wilco in your favorites is a different act from liking Wilco’s Facebook page, their official band site, or posting their latest video. Gauging someone’s interest in a movie or band by the favorites factor alone is inadequate. Their findings are essentially that taste doesn’t diffuse the way you might expect. But while the data support this, nothing supports the data.

Flattening huge sets of data and removing potentially conflative or distracting connections (“disentangling,” to use the researchers’ well-chosen word) is the bane of social research, and with a limited window on a huge field of data, like that these researchers had, it’s especially hard.

Who among these people was a supernode? What were their Twitter counts? What was the most common unit of interest? How many total posts, how many total favorite changes, how many total friends? The process of disentanglement only gets harder and harder, and the amount of indispensable data grows. The researchers have used advanced statistical techniques, but the data they were interpreting doesn’t seem to be at all complete.

The study does establish something that I think we perhaps understand is true already: you befriend people because of your overlaps in taste, but it’s rare that your existing friends change the tastes you already have. This is as much true out in the “real” world as it is online.

It seems to me that taste doesn’t propagate because taste is rarely propagated to begin with. And on Facebook, the focus is not on the laying up of collections (increasingly all anyone even sees is news, not favorites), the collaborative appreciation of any item or media in particular (for the most part, your “likes” disappear into a vast ocean of other likes), or the influencing of others (there are supernodes and influencers, but Facebook isn’t the proper tool for the job).

What propagates is individual items, events, songs, virals, and so on. To even collect, categorize, and weigh these collected items would not be to guarantee a meaningful result, since, as has been observed of the river, you never step into the same social stream twice. The status updates and comments of years past don’t strike me as a window into the soul of the user today. I have no doubt that some clever data divers and social archaeologists will find a way to make this data useful and powerful, but I don’t envy their task.

The Harvard study does indicate another thing, which is that social networks are, for now, “light” social interaction. Breaking into a new genre of music, discovering a new favorite director, getting book recommendations, these things don’t occur nearly as much on social networks as their proponents and heavy users would like to think. That’s changing, but Facebook doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to make the change to “serious” social interaction: the kind of trusted exchanges you have with friends in conversation or in repeated encounters over years that slowly convert you into a fan of David Lynch, or Scarlatti, or David Foster Wallace. Those are still the province of real life, it seems, even among the Facebook generation. But for how long?

More TechCrunch

Consumer demand for the latest AI technology is heating up. The launch of OpenAI’s latest flagship model, GPT-4o, has now driven the company’s biggest-ever spike in revenue on mobile, despite…

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch

Dating app maker Bumble has acquired Geneva, an online platform built around forming real-world groups and clubs. The company said that the deal is designed to help it expand its…

Bumble buys community building app Geneva to expand further into friendships

CyberArk — one of the army of larger security companies founded out of Israel — is acquiring Venafi, a specialist in machine identity, for $1.54 billion. 

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up in machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

23 hours ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

3 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

3 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases