Who’s more powerful on Facebook – 20 year olds or 60 year olds?

Who is more powerful on Facebook?  60 year olds or 20 year olds?

Image: Flickr - Greenchameleon

I’ve been thinking about this while chewing hard on an interesting nugget from the recent ‘Anatomy of Facebook’ study published by the Facebook Data Team and collaborators.   (You can find a summary of the study here and a link to the full article download here.)     The team selected five different age bands in the Facebook population, and for each of these five age cohorts, they looked at what age all that person’s Facebook friends were.

It’s the oldest Facebookers in the sample which have the widest variation in age range within their circle of FB-friends, and the youngest who have the narrowest.

Figure source: The Anatomy of Facebook - summary (Facebook Data Team)

Does this mean that if you want to achieve the widest potential reach for a message,  your best bet is to target 60 year olds to spread it?   That would be delightfully unexpected, if  true.  But I think it isn’t.

Let’s take a stroll together through a sanity check.  For every 60 year old who’s FB-friends with a 20 year old, there is a corresponding 20 year old in the data who’s FB-friends with that very same 60 year old.   For 60 years, the 20 year olds are noticeable, as a part of their friendship circle.   But,  when you look at the age distribution of FB-friendships for 20 year olds,  60 year olds form a vanishingly small part of their FB-friendship circle.

How can both these things be true?  My guess about what’s going on is that the 20 year olds tend to have many, many more friends than the 60 year olds.  I think that’s the main way in which 20 year olds could be important in 60 year olds’ FB-friends’ age distributions, but 60 year olds are not important (numerically speaking) to 20 year olds. This is just a guess but it’s my best guess about how these two facts could fit together.  If you have other ideas let me know what they are!

What’s the consequence of this pattern of connectivity?   We all know that raw connectivity and influence are not the same thing.  If you’re feeling digressive and a bit geeky here’s a fun paper on the topic of how network structural characteristics affect viral distribution patterns by Kitsak et al.   (Have fun but come back soon.)   But without connectivity, there is no path for influence to propagate.   So connectivity is  interesting.   It’s just not the only thing that’s interesting.

Considering the universe from a path connectivity point of view, what can we say about the relative potential power of 20 year olds vs 60 year olds?   From the point of view of outbound communication,  we can guess that as a 60 year old FB-friend it’s probably pretty hard to get the attention of the 20 year olds you’re connected to.  Speaking purely in connectivity terms, you have to fight for attention against all those inbound comms channels from all those 20 year old age-mates.    Your input is one of many.

But look at the information flow from the opposite perspective, and a tantalising possibility emerges.   The 60 year olds have the most broadly balanced feed, in terms of the age range of their information sources.   They will be better listeners, as their mixing deck is better adjusted to a wider range of signals from reality.   They will know a greater diversity of things.  They will be wiser, for structural reasons.   If you think knowledge is power then you should bet on the 60 year olds.   But I bet you knew that already.

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