Following the herd on Facebook

By Sigrid Folkestad

27 May 2016 12:40

Following the herd on Facebook

Last year, Facebook's "Like" button was pressed some six billion times a day, and we follow the herd when it comes to liking, according to a new NHH study. It is very conformist, and we tend to like what others have liked.

We largely copy other people's likes, and when someone we know has given something the thumbs up, we are very likely to do the same. There is a growing tendency for us all to like the same things.

Postdoctor Mathias Ekström, The Choice Lab.
Postdoctoral fellow at The Choice Lab, Norwegian School of Economics.

"There are several explanations for the herd mentality on Facebook, but conformity is the main mechanism. We do not want to break the established norm," says Mathias Ekström, postdoctoral fellow at The Choice Lab, at the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH).

Harvesting status points

The thumbs-up button is no longer alone. Now users can choose from a set of six emoticons that Facebook calls "reactions" to express love, laughter, joy, shock, grief and anger.

Ekström and Johan Egebark's article deals with the contagion effects of likes (see the reference below).

"If Facebook users are reluctant to be the first to like a post, previous likes will serve as social proof and minimise the potential negative status effect," he explains.

When someone you know likes a post, you can signal a connection with this person and possibly reap "status points" by expressing the same preference.

Conducive to conformity

Facebook creates an environment that encourages conformity, and there are several reasons for this, according to the researchers.

"First and foremost, it provides high visibility among a large number of users who are observing each other's actions. Secondly, much of the activity on the website is about expressing your thoughts and attitudes, which are important in signalling status.

Liking på Facebook illustrasjon
Harvesting status points by liking on Facebook. Ill: Wikimedia

"Moreover, because there is no obvious way to express disagreement once a norm has been established – there is no 'dislike' button, the pressure to conform will not diminish over time," says the researcher.

Six billion likes a day

Ekström and his co-author believe that herd behaviour as a phenomenon can help explain bubbles in the economy.

"When a trend appears, you might wonder whether its popularity is due to better products or better quality, or whether it simply reflects people's desire to do what everyone else is doing. The latter can help explain the formation of housing bubbles, for example."

Unfortunately, according to Ekström, herd behaviour is difficult to study, and we therefore know little about the phenomenon. However, Facebook provides an ideal opportunity to study herd behaviour.

Five users

The behavioural researchers designed an experiment based on five actual Facebook users. They published 44 status updates over a period of seven months. Some followers got to see the posts without likes, others only got to see them after someone had liked it.

Three different categories of likes were used:

• Only one unknown user had liked the post
• Three unknown users had liked the post
• One person they knew well had liked the post

"The effects are huge. When a stranger has liked the status update, it is not more likely that you will like the update. It has no effect. But if you see a status update that a friend has liked, you are 3–4 times more likely to like it. So it is clearly very important who is doing the liking, although how many likes a post has is also important," says Ekström.

Increasing the number of strangers who like a post also has an effect. You are then 2–3 times more likely to like it as well.

In keeping with the theory of social influence, people are only conformist when enough people influence them or when the influence comes from someone they know. This, according to Ekström, makes us act as a herd among followers on Facebook and like the same things as people we know and people we don't know.

LIke what others like?

"Like What You Like or Like What Others Like? Conformity and Peer Effects on Facebook" is a working paper written by Mathias Ekström (Norwegian School of Economics) and Johan Egebark at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics, Stockholm.

"So, in summary: we like what other people like on Facebook."

Better visibility?

Status updates that someone has liked are more prominent and visible, because the appearance changes, with a blue field under the post. This might increase their chance of being read and responded to.

However, the researchers can refute this, because all the status updates had the same visibility after being liked.

There are two main explanations for Facebook conformity, they claim. We tend to assume that other people's actions are the correct behaviour in a given case, which is especially evident in situations where we are uncertain as to how to act. This provides a sense of security.

The second is normative conformity: you seek recognition from others, or hope to avoid the inverse.

"We would have liked to have had findings that could distinguish between these two forms of social influence, but we are not there yet. What we can say based on this study is that there is a tendency for the herd mentality on Facebook to be all about recognition and peer pressure."

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