How Online Interaction Shapes Everything From Baby Name Trends To Revolutions

02/06/2015 12:13 pm ET | Updated Feb 06, 2015
Diane Macdonald via Getty Images

In 1914, the names "Mary" and "Helen" were all the rage for baby girls. In 2014, it was "Emma" and "Olivia" -- neither of which were even among the top eight girls' names just 15 years earlier.

How does a large population come to a consensus about which names are acceptable, and which are no longer desirable? Baby name trends are a perfect example of how norms change over time within different social groups. And based on new research, it's likely the structure of our social networks that determines whether new norms are spontaneously adopted.

Damon Centola, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, recently led a research project into the circumstances that give rise to new social conventions, from popular baby names to workplace norms to common slang terms. Using a Web-based model, Penn researchers tested how large populations come to be in agreement about ideas and codes of conduct -- showing why, for instance, different regions of the country have different words for the same product (e.g. "soda" vs. "pop") and how social movements like feminism have made their way into the mainstream and become popular.

"Our study explains how certain ideas and behaviors can gain a foothold and, all of a sudden, emerge as big winners," Centola said in a university press release. "It is a common misconception that this process depends upon some kind of leader, or centralized media source, to coordinate a population. We show that it can depend on nothing more than the normal interactions of people in social networks."

Centola and his colleagues created an online game to simulate the way languages evolve in the course of human interactions. They recruited a large group of Internet users to participate, and analyzed the evolution of the participants' responses to one another as they tried to zero in on a consensus about names.

The participants were paired together for rounds of a so-called "name game," in which they were shown a photograph of a face and asked to give it a name. If both players gave the same name, they won a small cash prize. If they gave different names, they lost a small amount of money and were each shown the name their partner came up with. The participants would continue this game with new partners for as many as 40 rounds, with the incentive in each round to come up with popular names.

"We wanted to study situations in which people people's primary interest is coordinating with one another, and they could invent any behavior they want -- i.e., situations in which there were an unlimited number of possibilities," Centola explained in an email to The Huffington Post. "This represents the situation with most social customs, such as language, politeness, gender conventions, and even health behaviors, where people can do or say anything, but they are primarily concerned with choosing behaviors that match up with what other people are doing."

For the second part of the experiment, the researchers tried changing the way the participants interacted with one another. Twenty-four players were assigned positions within one of three types of "social networks" -- but none of the players knew what their position was, or how many other people were in their network.

In the "geographical network," each player repeatedly interacted with four other players in a local "neighborhood." In the "small world network," each player interacted with four players from across the wider network. And in the "random mixing" network, each player was paired with a different player at random for every new round. The researchers observed patterns of behavior within each of the networks.

In the geographical and small world networks, there were several popular names, but the communities did not come to a consensus on any "winning" names. In the random mixing network, however, a winning name emerged after just a few rounds of playing. This suggests that large social networks with lots of interaction are most likely to come up with social norms. Though this process appeared to be spontaneous, it came about through widespread interaction.

"Consensus spontaneously emerged from nothing," Centola said. "At first it was chaos, everyone was saying different things and no one could coordinate, and then all of a sudden people who had never interacted with each other were all using the same words."

The findings could offer insight on how social change occurs within the context of online activity, which, of course, involves increased interaction across large networks. That kind of wide-scale communication has allowed attitudes and beliefs that once might have remained marginal to instead achieve widespread exposure -- as seen in everything from the Arab Spring uprisings to the recent movement against childhood vaccinations.

"We may be able to use these studies to understand the critical density at which online social networks shift from local opinion formation, to spontaneous convergence on norms," Centola told HuffPost. "The capacity of these networks to produce this kind of massive change in behavior, even though no one person or organization is advocating it, suggests that large and unexpected swings in collective attitudes and collective behaviors may become more common in the future as more and more people are connected online."

The findings were published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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