Over the past few years there has been a great deal of interest in how ideas and content spreads throughout a social network. Many of these explorations have focused on key nodes in the network that have a strong influence on the virality of ideas.
The web being the web, many of these ‘opinion formers’ are often self-proclaimed rather than anyone with real clout in their network, but a recent study from researchers at the University of Kansas suggests that such people may still have their uses.
What makes us share?
The researchers were particularly interested in the kind of people that share a news story. Is it something about them as people or the story itself that prompts them to pass it on?
The study revealed that whilst many of us will pass something on if we think it would be of interest, this is especially likely if we believe ourselves to be an opinion leader, in which case we’ll often pass on news regardless of how useful it actually is.
“One thing that’s always struck me is that some people are more likely to share things, both news and otherwise, than other people,” the authors say. “Studies have asked why people choose to read a story, but my study extends that to whether or not people will share the story. Once someone has read an article, what is the likelihood they will share it?”
It emerged that the usefulness of the content was by far and away the most reliable marker for whether it was shared or not, but that the opinion of the person doing the sharing mattered too, even if it was largely self-determined.
Whilst it would seem logical to expect even self-styled opinion formers to share the content with the highest utility, it actually emerged that they were as likely to share the less useful content too. In other words, they more likely to share content regardless of its value, thus fulfilling their duty as an ‘opinion former’.
What’s more, those who didn’t regard themselves as opinion formers were more likely not to share content, even if it would be useful to their social network.
It suggests that we should be looking at who is sharing our content as much as the actual content itself. It may serve us well to locate the self styled opinion formers in our niche.
“The idea for a while now has been that social media allows anyone to be an opinion leader, which allows anyone to be of value to an organization such as a media outlet because they can share their information,” the authors say. “But that doesn’t take into account that some people are more likely to share than others. Social media tends not to make opinion leaders out of people who don’t consider themselves opinion leaders.”
Of course, sharing poor quality content is unlikely to endear such people to their network, and the study did find that they were gradually tuned out, thus lessening any impact they may have.
“This study suggests that because some people are sharers and perceive themselves as well-informed, and because they share large amounts of information, their audiences may actually tune them out,” the authors conclude. “It’s linked to credibility. If people share everything all the time, does that have a positive effect?”