In an era of fleeting but constant contact with sprawling online communities, it’s common to find yourself wondering: are your friends happier/more popular than you? To test these feelings, scientists they sifted through the timelines of thousands of Twitter usersto understand the ways in which social networks influence the way we feel and relate to each other.
Guest post by Johan Bollen
Social media platforms have garnered billions of users, perhaps because they satisfy a strong human need to feel connected. However, do they actually contribute to our social happiness?
In EPJ Data Science we try to shed light on this problem from the point of view of network science. We are wondering if the well-known friendship paradox in social networks (i.e. your friends are likely to be more popular than you on average) translates into a happiness paradox (i.e. your friends are likely to be happier than you on average). you)?
The friendship paradox is the result of skewed distributions of network connections: Few individuals have very many connections, so they’re also more likely to be your friends, inflating your friends’ average popularity. As a result, many if not most people on a social network may feel that their friends are more popular. However, does popularity actually imply happiness? And if it did, would we also observe a paradox of happiness in social networks?
In our newspaper we measure the subjective well-being of large numbers of Twitter users by subjecting the entire timeline of Twitter posts to a sentiment analysis algorithm. For each user we thus obtain a numerical indication of their individual level of subjective well-being or « happiness » in the long term. We also build a social network of these same Twitter users based on who follows whom. These 2 data points allow us to compare users’ happiness and popularity with their friends’ averages.
Most users are on average less happy than their friends.
Although we find only a weak correlation between popularity and happiness, we observe both a significant friendship and happiness paradox. The vast majority of our network users are on average less popular than their friends. The majority are also less happy than their friends on average.
Furthermore, we find that users fall into 2 distinct groups based on their happiness levels: one group of happy users with happy friends and another group of unhappy users with mostly unhappy friends. Both of these groups exhibit a happiness paradox, but surprisingly it is stronger for the unhappy group, despite the fact that their friends are relatively unhappy and their happiness is less strongly related to popularity.
While our results do not allow us to draw conclusions about whether social media use is actually making people happier or more popular, they do show that unexpected and seemingly counterintuitive network effects may be associated with subjective well-being and popularity. If we tend to compare ourselves to our friends, it can be speculated that the paradoxes we observe could actually have an effect on social happiness levels. This may explain recent observations of increased levels of dissatisfaction and lower well-being for social media users. Given the scale of social media usage, even a small effect can have a significant impact on global happiness levels.
Read the full article Here.
Johan Bollen is an associate professor at the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University Bloomington. He is interested in computational models of how human behavior and emotions interact with online social networks in large-scale socio-technical systems.