Ask avatars what makes trends trendy

U. MICHIGAN (US)—Scientists are turning to the virtual world Second Life to understand the role social influence plays in the spreading trends because it’s difficult to track how people acquire new items or preferences in the real world.

Researchers from the University of Michigan have taken advantage of this unique information to study how “gestures” make their way through this online community. Gestures are code snippets that Second Life avatars must acquire in order to make motions such as dancing, waving, or chanting.

The study is one of the first to model social influence in a virtual world because of the rarity of having access to information about how information, assets, or ideas propagate. In Second Life, the previous owner of a gesture is listed.

Roughly half of the gestures the researchers studied made their way through the virtual world friend by friend.

“We could have found that most everyone goes to the store to buy gestures, but it turns out about 50 percent of gesture transfers are between people who have declared themselves friends. The social networks played a major role in the distribution of these assets,” says Lada Adamic, an assistant professor in the School of Information and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“There’s been a high correspondence between the real world and virtual worlds,” Adamic says. “We’re not saying this is exactly how people share in the real world, but we believe it does have some relevance.”

The researchers also found that the gestures that spread from friend to friend were not distributed as broadly as ones that were distributed outside of the social network, such as those acquired in stores or as giveaways.

And they discovered that the early adopters of gestures—who are among the first 5 to 10 percent to acquire new assets—are not the same as the influencers, who tend to distribute them most broadly.

“In our study, we sought to develop a more rigorous understanding of social processes that underlie many cultural and economic phenomena,” says study coauthor Eytan Bakshy. “While some of our findings may seem quite intuitive, what I find most exciting is that we were actually able to test some rather controversial and competing hypotheses about the role of social networks in influence.”

The research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

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