Using epidemic models that draw comparisons between the transmission of complex social phenomena and infectious diseases, scientists at the Universities of Aberdeen, Cambridge, Zaragoza and Nacional de Colombia have developed a mathematical model that explains how things become extraordinarily popular in a very short amount of time.
“We often witness social phenomena that become accepted by many people overnight, especially now in the age of social media,” said study lead author Dr Francisco Perez-Reche from the University of Aberdeen’s School of Natural and Computing Sciences.
The model, which is the first of its kind, shows how this is especially relevant to the growing popularity of certain products, ideas and social behaviours.
Previous models attempting the same typically neglected the synergistic effects of acquaintances and were unable to explain the so-called “explosive contagion”, which the authors claim is the main driver behind sudden fame.
Writing in a paper published by Nature Scientific Reports, the team argues that people’s opposition to a new idea acts as a barrier to contagion, which becomes possible only after the transmission of the phenomenon becomes strong enough to convince those on the fence to give in and join the crowd.
What role does social media play in this? According to Dr Perez, Facebook, Twitter and other popular platforms can be important for spreading the word and making contagion more apparent, but ultimately it’s the intrinsic value of the idea or product, and the willingness of friends and acquaintances to adopt it that makes or breaks a new trend.
The team believes their model could potentially be used to address social issues, or by companies striving to gain an advantage over their competitors.
“For instance, it could lead to better strategies to minimise the risk of sudden and often unexpected epidemics of undesired social behaviour. Similarly, it will suggest methods to engineer explosive diffusion of innovative products and ideas,” said Perez.