Sinan Aral was one of the first people to seriously pay attention to and study social media. I am super interested in the mechanics of social media. Some might say I have an unhealthy obsession with exploring virality and the Wall Street Bets movement. I had a lot of fun diving in with Sinan.
Here are some highlights from my conversation with Sinan Aral.
People tend to make friends with people who are like them -- this is old news. They move to communities where everyone belongs to the same political party. They subscribe to niche news that they want to hear. But we’re now seeing this amplified by social media algorithms. These algorithms are optimized to recommend connections that are even more like you than you would run into in everyday life. This creates bubbles where you are completely blocked off from other perspectives -- your entire stream of information becomes tailored to a very specific worldview.
Sinan published a 10 year study in Science on the spread of false news on Twitter. The people spreading false news had fewer followers, followed fewer people, were less often verified, and had been on Twitter for less time. So what drove these viral posts? They were novel. Novelty isn’t a well defined concept, but you can think of it as a classic man bites dog situation. These posts inspired shock and awe -- they were different from what people had seen otherwise.
While most viral posts are “novel”, they also tend to have qualities that are unique to them. These unknown quantities are key to why they go viral. So this makes it incredibly hard to create reliable models that predict virality.
Trying to break up companies is slow and laborious. It’s not clear how to break up all monopolies -- many of the biggest tech companies are very intertwined. And simply breaking up of a company doesn't prevent the next company from doing that same thing. To create sustainable competition, we would need regulation that applies not just to the current market leader, but anybody that comes after that market leader.
Wall Street Bets showed us that online collective crowds could successfully exercise collective behavior coordination. And institutional investors are now part of the conversation too. They’re monitoring and trading against it or adding fuel to the fire. When a big hedge fund goes down, there are other hedge funds helping the hedge funds go down. They’re helping the crowds.
It's hard to predict where we will see the next successful group go. But it will likely evolve, and we will likely see movement toward new sub-reddits and social platforms.
Note: if you enjoy this episode of World of Daas, be sure to follow Sinan Aral on Twitter.