Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Similarity breeds connection

Aral et al. examine the huge dataset available on the spread (contagion) of a new mobile service product (Yahoo! Go) among 27.5 million users of Yahoo.com. The dataset comprehensively captures the diffusion of this mobile service product over a social network for 5 months after its launch date. They note that a key challenge in identifying true contagions in such data is to distinguish peer-to-peer influence, in which a node influences or causes outcomes in its neighbors, from homophily, in which dyadic similarities between nodes create correlated outcome patterns among neighbors that merely mimic viral contagions without direct causal influence.   Here is their abstract:
Node characteristics and behaviors are often correlated with the structure of social networks over time. While evidence of this type of assortative mixing and temporal clustering of behaviors among linked nodes is used to support claims of peer influence and social contagion in networks, homophily may also explain such evidence. Here we develop a dynamic matched sample estimation framework to distinguish influence and homophily effects in dynamic networks, and we apply this framework to a global instant messaging network of 27.4 million users, using data on the day-by-day adoption of a mobile service application and users' longitudinal behavioral, demographic, and geographic data. We find that previous methods overestimate peer influence in product adoption decisions in this network by 300–700%, and that homophily explains >50% of the perceived behavioral contagion. These findings and methods are essential to both our understanding of the mechanisms that drive contagions in networks and our knowledge of how to propagate or combat them in domains as diverse as epidemiology, marketing, development economics, and public health.

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