THE BLOG

Where Can You Escape Your More Popular Friends?

20/01/2014 15:29 GMT | Updated 21/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Your friends have more friends than you do.

This 'friendship paradox' was the surprising result of a 1991 study into the properties of social networks.

Sociologists have since seen this in evidence in a wide variety of situations. On average, whether it's Facebook, Twitter or sexual partners your friends, followers or partners all have (or have had) more friends, followers or partners than you.

The reason is really rather simple. The number of friends people have are distributed in a way which follows a power law rather than an ordinary linear relationship. So most people have a few friends, while a small number of people have lots of friends.

The friendship paradox is caused by the second group.

People with lots of friends are more likely to number among your friends in the first place, thereby raising the average number of friends your friends have. Therefore, on average, your friends have more friends than you do.

A recent study by scientists in Finland and France has since discovered the "generalised friendship paradox". What this essentially means is that your friends are, on average, also happier and richer than you are (and whatever other measure of success you can think of too).

The authors state, "this might be the reason why active online social networking service users are not happy" (the issue being particularly acute in networks where it's easier to see the success of others).

Social success fatigue

Across networks such as Twitter and Instagram our success is instantly quantifiable, reduced to a single, visible metric which encourages us to compare ourselves to others.

Although Facebook has made the number of friends of our friends less visible, it still encourages us to measure our popularity in other ways: "24 friends posted on Joe's timeline on his birthday" (Facebook being specifically designed to encourage more and more user activity).

In contrast, although 'success' is quite visible on an individual post (via the number of notes), Tumblr makes it quite difficult to see how many followers those we're following have.

It's designed for us to explore our identities: an evolving digital bedroom wall with popularity metrics relegated to the background.

Unlike Facebook, Tumblr's happy for people to use pseudonyms too.

Its users favour the blogging network because their friends aren't there (or are difficult to find).

This doesn't necessarily mean people feel freer to share whatever they want, however.

As one user said in an interview with individuals who have become 'Tumblr famous':

"Most internet presences would rather be seen as 'quirky' and 'hilarious' than 'beautiful' and 'provocative.' It is simply safer....part of the internet experience is assuming a critical audience. If there were no critical audience, everyone would act genuine at all times."

In part, this relates to the greater tendency to use real names on Facebook, in contrast to the relative anonymity of Tumblr. While this forms part of the appeal of Tumblr, the online disinhibition effect becomes more pronounced when someone is deemed to be growing in popularity and inevitably becomes more of a target as a result.

I've written before about the validation we experience through likes and re-tweets and the risks this encourages us to take. However, in an interesting twist on this, one female Tumblr user talked about her reaction to receiving likes from the 'wrong' people:

"Sometimes the 'likes' I get on Facebook and Tumblr do the opposite of making me feel validated. If the people who 'like' the photo are uncool in my eyes, I feel misunderstood and frustrated. I wonder, 'why would this photo appeal to this person? Did I miss the mark and accidentally create something approachable?'"

As professionals working in social media, we tend to think the goal is always about reaching as many people as possible.

However, exclusivity can be just as important in attracting people to a social network too.

Sometimes it's nice to escape your friends.

It can also be nice to stop comparing yourself to them too.