Online popularity can be thought of as analogous to an earthquake; it is sudden, unpredictable, and the effects are severe. While shifts in online popularity are not inherently destructive – consider the unprecedented magnitude of online giving via Twitter following the disaster in Haiti – they indicate radical swings in society’s collective attention. Given the increasingly profound effect that large-scale opinion formation has on important phenomena like public policy, culture, and advertising profits, understanding this behavior is essential to understanding how the world operates.
In this paper by Ratkiewicz and colleagues, the authors put forth a web-wide analysis that includes large-scale data sets of the online behaviors of millions of people. The paper offers a novel model that is is capable of reproducing all of the observed dynamics of online popularity through a mechanism that causes sudden, nonlinear bursts of collective attention. These results have been mentioned in the APS and PhysOrg websites.