Image: Spectrum Media

We sometimes feel no one likes us. Other times (possibly fewer), that everyone does.

There is a mathematical explanation for why the internet plays into our illusions. A recent article in MIT Technology Review offers to deconstruct the illusions.

First, we may not have as many internet “friends” as others do. But, as Kristina Lerman and colleagues at the University of Southern California point out, “on average your friends will have more friends than you do”:

This comes about because the distribution of friends on social networks follows a power law. So while most people will have a small number of friends, a few individuals have huge numbers of friends. And these people skew the average.

That skew created by celebs makes us think most other people in our network are better Liked than we are. Usually not true.

The researchers also identified a “majority illusion”: 

This is the phenomenon in which an individual can observe a behavior or attribute in most of his or her friends, even though it is rare in the network as a whole. And believe it is a norm. Unfortunately, it can help spread antisocial behavior:

Various studies have shown that teenagers consistently overestimate the amount of alcohol and drugs their friends consume. “If heavy drinkers also happen to be more popular, then people examining their friends’ drinking behavior will conclude that, on average, their friends drink more than they do,” say Lermann and co.

So much for “Everyone is doing it.” Maybe every Friend who isn’t a serious addict isn’t doing it. Won’t be in the hospital, in rehab, or in jail. 

I think schools today should teach teens about these issues; they are rarely self-evident.

Note: Further to things parents, teachers, and teens should know, recently, we’ve been looking at many ways the internet can create a fake world.

One can be hearing lifelike false news, be misled about the popularity or even value of a product or service due to the efforts of click farms and fake online reviews, put trust in someone who has undergone reputation management, form a relationship with someone who doesn’t exist, or even receive computer-generated messages allegedly from someone who has died.

Critical thinking has never been more necessary than now. And, increasingly, we need education systems that help it start early.


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...