Who with whom?

The flow of information in social networks is even more strongly determined by the age and gender preferences of its members than a bare glance at the structure reveals

Have you heard it yet? A colleague told me the other day. No, you do not know him. The one with the square glasses. Do not know? What I said. Anyway, he told me he knew it from his boss’ brother. Yes, from the brother, the one who always walks around in those torn clothes. You must have seen. As if the boss was not earning enough to give him a few bucks… A shame, yes indeed. So the colleague…

Could there be a reason to scientifically investigate such conversations? In fact, apart from the banal content, chatter also shows some exciting parameters of human communication. Researchers are interested in who exchanges data with whom – and why.

And that’s not all: a paper published this week by the scientific journal PNAS shows that the timing also plays a role. The four Finnish researchers used a database of 600 million telephone conversations between 6.3 million anonymous participants over a period of six months. The database revealed not only who had communicated with whom and when, but also the age and gender of the people in question.

First, the researchers analyzed the data in the usual way. From the dialed numbers, they constructed the social network of all users. It came as no surprise that this was characterized by pronounced social homophily: like goes with like – this is the motto by which most people build their relationship patterns (even if unconsciously). How does information move through such a network??

Using the times of the calls, the researchers created a temporal network in the second step: first A calls B, then B calls C, and so on. Whether a certain piece of information is actually passed on is not relevant in terms of statistics: In any case, the average probability is high.

One-way dissemination of information

In this way, the researchers were able to map the flow of information over time. It turned out that social homophily plays an even stronger role than can be seen from the static structure of the same network. Even if a person has contacts in his network that are less similar to him, he is less likely to pass on information to them. The fact that this human characteristic has such a clear effect on the flow of information surprised the researchers.

The result has a more than theoretical meaning: when information spreads in such a one-sided way, at first sight it only limits the range of a piece of information. But it also limits the type and amount of information that each individual receives – who, as an individual, is always part of a social network.

At the same time, it reinforces the importance and also the power of such multipliers, who communicate across sub-networks and rub in the boundaries drawn by man’s inherent social homophily.

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