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Going Viral and Game Theory

How do ideas become “viral” and spread like wildfire in an online community?  Does it have to do with the number of people who are exposed to the idea or the level of interest of the subject or something entirely different?  In an online article, “Game Theory Explains Why Some Content Goes Viral on Reddit, Digg”, Casey Johnston reiterates from researchers that the spread of viral content not only has to do with the amount of exposure within a network but is also related to the interaction of players who decide whether to adopt something new based on their immediate surroundings.

People may think that viral content spreads especially quickly in a concentrated network; however, this is proved wrong by two researchers who explored the correlation between virality and game theory.  They discovered that “nodes that weren’t tightly integrated to the network and maintained fewer connections let change spread more quickly, while nodes with lots of connections actually slowed the spread down.”  In other words, a group of people that has perfect information about everyone else’s decisions was less likely to adopt new change than a group of people who had imperfect information about the decisions of others around them.  This non-intuitive discovery can be explained by the fact that highly connected nodes become barriers of viral content spread because they are more likely to be pressured by their many neighbors who have not yet adopted the viral content.  It seems like many people are significantly affected by peer pressure and what others think of them and their actions.

In lecture, we discussed that game theory refers to the situations in which decision-makers interact with each other, and in which the happiness of a player’s outcome is affected by not only the player’s decision, but also the decisions made by everyone else.  According to the article, a highly connected node would follow a trend only when most neighbors have already followed the trend.  For instance, if someone wants to apply to a cell phone carrier, her happiness would definitely increase if she chose the same carrier as her  other close friends because of free texting and calling.  Additionally, Facebook can be thought of a viral social networking community, but the main reason why so many people are using it is because they know their friends are using it too.  When something is going viral, sometimes it is not the amount of views or “likes” that matters, but it is the decisions that people make based on what other people are bound to do.

– worldspinsmadlyon


Johnston, C. (Nov. 2010). Game theory explains why some content goes viral on Reddit, Digg.


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