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Gesundheit! Modeling Contagion through Facebook News Feed

Gesundheit! Modeling Contagion through Facebook News Feed

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Published by: Jonathan Chang on Jun 06, 2011
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08/02/2012

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Gesundheit! Modeling Contagion through Facebook News Feed
Eric Sun
1
, Itamar Rosenn
2
, Cameron A. Marlow
3
, Thomas M. Lento
4
 
1
Department of Statistics, Stanford University
2,3,4
Facebook
1
esun@cs.stanford.edu;
2,3,4
{itamar, cameron, lento}@facebook.com
Abstract
Whether they are modeling bookmarking behavior in Flickror cascades of failure in large networks, models of diffusionoften start with the assumption that a few nodes start longchain reactions, resulting in large-scale cascades. While rea-sonable under some conditions, this assumption may nothold for social media networks, where user engagement ishigh and information may enter a system from multiple dis-connected sources.Using a dataset of 262,985 Facebook
Pages
and their as-sociated fans, this paper provides an empirical investigationof diffusion through a large social media network. AlthoughFacebook diffusion chains are often extremely long (chainsof up to 82 levels have been observed), they are not usuallythe result of a single chain-reaction event. Rather, these dif-fusion chains are typically started by a substantial numberof users. Large clusters emerge when hundreds or eventhousands of short diffusion chains merge together.
 
This paper presents an analysis of these diffusion chainsusing zero-inflated negative binomial regressions. We showthat after controlling for distribution effects, there is nomeaningful evidence that a start node’s maximum diffusionchain length can be predicted with the user’s demographicsor Facebook usage characteristics (including the user’snumber of Facebook friends). This may provide insight intofuture research on public opinion formation.
Introduction
 
Diffusion models have been used to explain phenomenaranging from social movement participation to the spreadof contagious diseases. Some of these models (e.g. Gruhl etal. 2004; Leskovec et al. 2007; Newman 2002) are an ex-tension of epidemiological models of contagion, such asSIR or SIRS (Anderson and May 1991), while others in-troduce network-based features, such as thresholds foradoption (Centola and Macy 2007). While these modelshave contributed to our understanding of how diffusionsspread across a population, most of them start with an iso-lated event and explore the conditions under which thisevent will trigger a global cascade. Although this is a rea-sonable approach to understanding certain diffusion prob-lems, it may not be the best method for modeling thespread of information through a social media network. Fur-thermore, with a few notable exceptions, these models are
Copyright © 2009, Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelli-gence (www.aaai.org). All rights reserved.
 
developed without directly relevant empirical data to in-form the assumptions and assess the validity of the models.In this paper, we use data from Facebook, a social net-working service with over 175 million active users,
1
toempirically assess the conditions under which large-scalecascades occur within a social networking service. We alsohighlight key differences between cascades in social mediaand cascades that result from a single isolated event.How is diffusion currently modeled? A basic contagionmodel starts with an event, which propagates through anetwork by spreading along the ties between infected andsusceptible nodes. Theoretical models without an empiricalbasis often focus on isolating the importance of specificcharacteristics relevant to the diffusion process. Percola-tion models can isolate the relationship between transmis-sion probability and the spread of an infection through anetwork (Moore and Newman 2000), while models focus-ing on structural and individual characteristics assess theimpact of network topology or various thresholds for adop-tion (Granovetter 1978) on the likelihood of a cascade.One of the most prominent models of the effect of net-work topology on diffusion shows that rapid global cas-cades are possible on highly clustered networks even withfew ties connecting otherwise disconnected clusters (Wattsand Strogatz 1998). More general models suggest that thelikelihood of a global cascade – defined as a cascade thateventually reaches a sufficiently large proportion of thenetwork – varies with network connectivity, degree distri-bution, and threshold distribution (Centola and Macy 2007;Watts 2002).In addition to adoption thresholds and network topology,diffusion models also assess the importance of influenceand connectedness at the level of the individual node.Watts and Dodds (2007) recently published a model spe-cifically designed to determine whether or not “influen-tial,” or well-connected, nodes are more likely to trigger aglobal cascade. Their findings, which suggest that influen-tial nodes are no more likely to trigger cascades than aver-age nodes, run counter to popular suggestions from Glad-well (2000) and others that the key to mass popularity is toidentify and reach a small number of highly influential ac-tors (after which everyone else will be reached, essentiallyfor free). These models have significant practical implica-tions for marketers, particularly those who are interested in
1
http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics
 
advertising through social media. However, practitionersand researchers in this area can also benefit from empiricalmodels of how information spreads in social networks.Models starting from an empirical base typically involvean algorithm that predicts the observed behavior of infor-mation propagation. These are commonly developed usingblog or web data due to the availability of accurate infor-mation regarding links and the time at which data wasposted or transmitted. Analysis of link cascades (Leskovecet al. 2007) and information diffusion (Gruhl et al. 2004) inblogs, as well as photo bookmarking in Flickr (Cha et al.2008), can all be modeled by variations on standard epi-demiological methods. Models of social movement partici-pation and contribution to collective action (Gould 1993;Oliver, Marwell, and Teixeira 1985) are often tied to anempirical foundation, but with some exceptions (Macy1991; Oliver, Marwell, and Prahl 1998) these do not focusas strongly on network properties and cascades.In most network models of diffusion, the contagion istriggered by a fairly small number of sources. In somecases (e.g. Centola and Macy 2007; Watts and Strogatz1998), the models are explicitly designed to assess the im-pact of an isolated event on the network as a whole. Inother cases, such as in blog networks, the way informationis introduced lends itself to scenarios where one or a fewsources may trigger a cascade. This start condition there-fore makes sense both in models focused on the endoge-nous effects of diffusion and in models based on empiricalscenarios in which a few nodes initiate cascades. However,it does create a particular conceptualization of how diffu-sion processes work. At the basis of these models is the as-sumption that a small number of nodes triggers a largechain-reaction, which is observed as a large cascade. Thisassumption may not hold in social media systems, wherediffusion events are often related to publicly visible piecesof content that are introduced into a particular networkfrom many otherwise disconnected sources. Informationwill not necessarily spread through these networks vialong, branching chains of adoption, but may instead exhibitdiffusion patterns characterized by large-scale collisions of shorter chains. Some evidence of this effect has alreadybeen observed in blog networks (Leskovec et al. 2007).Even if this initial assumption is valid and cascades insocial media are started by a tiny fraction of the user popu-lation, these models typically lack external empirical vali-dation. Accurate data on social network structures andadoption events are difficult to collect and has not beenreadily available until fairly recently. In the cases wherediffusion data have been tracked, it typically does not in-clude the fine-grained exposure data necessary to fullydocument diffusion. Given the earlier data limitations fac-ing empirical studies of diffusion, the primary goal of thisstudy is to provide a detailed empirical description of largecascades over social networks.Using data on 262,985 Facebook
Pages
, this paper pre-sents an empirical examination of large cascades throughthe Facebook network. We first describe the process of 
Page
diffusion via Facebook’s News Feed, after which weprovide introductory summary statistics that describe thechains of diffusion that result. Unlike previous empiricalwork, the data we present include every user exposure andcover millions of individual diffusion events. We assessthe conditions under which large cascades occur, with aparticular focus on analyzing the number of nodes respon-sible for triggering chains of adoption and the typicallength of these chains. We then provide a detailed analysisof 179,010 “chain starters” over a six-month period start-ing on February 19, 2008 and investigate how their demo-graphics and Facebook usage patterns may predict thelength of the diffusion chains that they initiate.
Mechanics of Facebook Page Diffusion
Diffusion on Facebook is principally made possible byNews Feed (Figure 1), which appears on every user’shomepage and surfaces recent friend activity such as pro-file changes, shared links, comments, and posted notes. Animportant feature of News Feed is that it allows for
 passive
 information sharing, where users can broadcast an action totheir entire network of friends through News Feed (insteadof 
active
sharing methods such as a private message, wherea user picks a specific recipient or recipients). These storiesare aggregated and filtered through an algorithm that ranksstories based on social and content-based features, thendisplayed to the friends along with stories from other usersin their networks.To analyze how ideas diffuse on Facebook, we concen-trate on the News Feed propagation of one particularly vi-ral feature of Facebook, the
Pages
product. Pages wereoriginally envisioned as distinct, customized profiles de-signed for businesses, bands, celebrities, etc. to representthemselves on Facebook.
Figure 1. Screenshot of News Feed, Facebook’s principal method of passive information sharing.
 
Since the original rollout in late 2007, hundreds of thou-sands of Pages have been created for almost every con-ceivable idea. Pages are made by corporations who wish toestablish an advertising presence on Facebook, artists andcelebrities who seek a place to interact with their fans, andregular users who simply want to create a gathering placefor their interests.Users interact with a Page by first becoming a “fan” of the Page; they can then post messages, photos, and variousother types of content depending on the Page’s settings. Asof March 2009, the most popular Facebook Page was Ba-rack Obama’s Page,
2
with over 5.7 million fans.When users become fans of a particular Page, their ac-tion may be broadcast to their friends’ News Feeds (seeFigure 2). An important exception is that the users mayelect to delete the fanning story from their profile feed(perhaps to reduce clutter on their profile, or because theydo not want to draw too much attention to their action). Inthis case, the story will not be publicized on their friends’News Feeds.Diffusion of Pages occurs when 1) a user fans a Page; 2)this action is broadcast to their friends’ News Feeds; and 3)one or more of their friends sees the item and decides tobecome a fan as well.
Figure 2. Sample News Feed item of Page fanning.
Without News Feed diffusion, we might expect thatPages acquire their fans at a roughly linear pace. However,since Facebook users are so active, actions such as Pagefanning are quickly propagated through the network. As aresult, we see frequent spikes of Page fanning, presumablydriven by News Feed.To motivate our subsequent analyses, Figure 3 showsthe empirical cumulative distribution function of Page fanacquisition over time (the
 x
-axis) for a random sample of 20 Pages. Each graph starts at the Page creation date andends at the end of the sample period (August 19, 2008).From just this small sample of Pages, we see that there isno obvious pattern; clearly, Pages acquire their fans athighly variable rates. This paper will provide some insightinto this phenomenon after the following section, whichprovides a more detailed description of the data used in theanalysis.
Data
In this paper, we analyze Page data by creating trees thatlink
actors
and
 followers
for each Page on Facebook. Wemeasure diffusion via
levels
of a chain, as shown in Figure4. An important note is that due to News Feed aggregation,
2
http://www.facebook.com/barackobama
Figure 3. Empirical CDFs of Page fanning over time for arandom sample of 20 Pages.
users may see multiple friends perform a Page fanning ac-tion in a single News Feed story. For example, Charlie maysee the following News Feed story: “Alice and Bob be-came a fan of Page XYZ.” In this case, Charlie’s node onthe tree would have two parents. Furthermore, if Alice andBob were on separate diffusion chains, the two chains havenow merged. We extract every such chain from server logsthat record fanning events and News Feed impressions forall of the Pages in our sample.
Figure 4. A possible diffusion chain of length 1.
We infer links of associations based on News Feed im-pressions of friends’ Page fanning activity: if a user
a
sawthat friend
b
 
became a fan of Page
P
within 24 hours priorof 
a
becoming a fan, we record an edge from the follower
b
to the actor
a
. The 24-hour window is a logical break-point that allows us to account for various methods of Pagefanning (e.g., clicking a link on the News feed, navigatingto the Page and clicking “Become a Fan,” etc.) without be-ing overly optimistic in assigning links. As we create largertrees, some users (i.e., fans in the middle of a chain) maybecome both actors and followers; some users may be ac-tors but not followers (the chain-starters); and some userscan be followers but not actors (the leaves of the chains).Our dataset consists of all Facebook Pages created be-tween February 19, 2008 and August 19, 2008, and all of their associated fans (as of August 19, 2008). These datainclude 262,985 Pages that contained at least one diffusionevent. Because any Facebook user can create a Page aboutany topic, there are a large number of Pages with just a few

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