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The Herding Effect of Profile Picture Filters


Facebook is largely considered to be the quintessential example of social media and contains one of the largest social networks in the world. It comes as no surprise then that this structure has the potential to trigger trends that are similar to information cascades throughout local areas of this global friendship network. A relevant and recent example of this phenomenon is the use of filters on one’s profile picture to demonstrate support for a cause such as the legalization of gay marriage, advocacy for Planned Parenthood, or showing solidarity for Paris after the recent terrorist attacks. From personal observation of my own news feed, these filters are used by a few people at first, then a few more, followed by a sudden rush of adopters before a gradual slowing of the process as the cause behind the filter begins to die down. This phenomenon can best be explained by drawing comparisons to an information cascade. While the exact dynamics that go into the personal decision to add a filter to one’s profile picture are too complex to model in a rigorous mathematical way, it is still worth exploring both the informational and direct benefit effects behind this decision, and their potential to trigger a cascade.

The first effect that we should examine is the informational effect of using a filter. These filters can be extremely useful in disseminating information about a topic very quickly to a large group of people. For example, in the fallout of the Paris terrorist attacks, Facebook encouraged its users’ to adopt a French flag filter. As French flags began to pop up on news feeds, it presented the opportunity for people oblivious to the events, to quickly become aware of the tragedy in France and respond accordingly. For example, by checking up on loved ones in the area or by in turn adding a filter to further raise awareness.

The second effect we will examine is the direct benefits of using a filter. For this effect we can use the example of the Planned Parenthood filter. When the filter was first released, there was a much higher probability that someone would use it if they were an avid supporter of the program. However, as more people began to use it, a social incentive was also created as it became socially desirable to align oneself with a cause that all of their friends supported. This effect compounds on itself because the more people who use the filter creates a larger social incentive, and as a result less passion for the underlying cause is required for people to adopt it.

As an avid consumer of social media myself, I feel that it is important for us to understand how trends such as the use of profile picture filters propagate through a social network. An understanding of direct-benefit and information effects thus become necessary for us to truly understand the content we’re exposed to on a daily basis.


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