What is the main motivating factor when a person decides to download a Facebook application (app)? Surprisingly, it’s the popularity of the app itself, according to an Oxford University study.
Using data derived from tracking 100 million anonymous app downloads, the researchers were able to observe the rate—on an hourly basis—at which 2,700 apps were installed by 50 million Facebook users over two months in 2007.
When an app first began, downloads appeared to be based on personal choice. After a certain level of popularity, however, downloading was based on how many others had previously downloaded the app.
In fact, when an app reached a rate of about 55 installations per day, its popularity then began to intensify at stellar proportions. For example, an average app might be installed by about 1,000 users, but the most popular app at the time—Top Friends—was in a different league, having been downloaded by 12 million users, almost a fifth of the entire Facebook population.
The results show that social influence plays a major role in whether apps are successful or not. Jumping in on the fun was made easy since Facebook would always notify users when one of their online friends downloaded a new app. Also, in 2007, all Facebook users could view a list of the most popular apps, so they could see if the app had global popularity in addition to local popularity.
“Our analysis reveals a very interesting new finding. Users only appear to be influenced by the choices of other users above a certain level of popularity, and at that point popularity drives future popularity. Below this threshold, the effects of social influence are imperceptible,” said Dr. Felix Reed-Tsochas, a James Martin Lecturer from the Oxford Martin School’s Institute for Science, Innovation and Society at the Saïd Business School.
“Because popularity seems to depend mainly on the choices of other users in the community, rather than intrinsic characteristics of the applications themselves, it does not appear possible to predict which applications will succeed and which will fail ahead of time.”
In addition to revealing the psychology behind Facebook app downloads, the study could have implications for the rest of the online world. For example, online product ratings might influence a product’s future popularity more than originally thought. The study also informs us about our behavior in the real world as well.
“There has been a lot of research into the spread of ideas and products. Previously, we have only been able to track the spread of successful innovations, and then only among a small set of potential users,” said Reed-Tsochas.
“Our research in the virtual world of online social networks is the equivalent to moving from a fixed telescope that lets us view a restricted number of stars to having a complete map of all the stars in the universe.”
“At this stage, we simply don’t know whether this marks an important difference between offline and online behaviour, or whether more detailed and comprehensive data from offline contexts will identify similar collective behaviour in settings that do not involve online environments,” he added.
The study is published in PNAS journal.
Source: University of Oxford