The bad news just keeps a-coming, you guys. Earlier this month, we learned from some new research that up to half the people you consider friends don’t feel the same way about you. And then, like dumping an open container of salt into a gaping wound, another study has surfaced to remind us that the friends we do have are, I’m sorry to say, generally cooler than we are.
In a recent study in the journal PLoS, a team of computer scientists from McGill University examined how the so-called “friendship paradox” plays out on Twitter. This paradox, like most paradoxes, is a bit hard to grasp. It was coined in 1991 by the sociologist Scott Feld, who noticed an odd pattern while studying the structure of social networks: Somehow, everyone was less popular than their friends. The key, he found, was a handful of extra-sociable people who skew the numbers. A 2014 article in MIT Technology Review explained it this way:
The paradox arises because numbers of friends people have are distributed in a way that follows a power law rather than an ordinary linear relationship. So most people have a few friends while a small number of people have lots of friends.
It’s this second small group that causes the paradox. People with lots of friends are more likely to number among your friends in the first place. And when they do, they significantly raise the average number of friends that your friends have. That’s the reason that, on average, your friends have more friends than you do.
For the PLoS study, the authors analyzed around 200 million tweets from 5.8 million users, looking at the follower and following counts for each person. They also measured users’ influence by looking at the level of engagement for each tweet — things like how often they were retweeted and how many retweets each post had. Sure enough, the friendship paradox held up: People overwhelmingly followed users who were more popular than they were, both in sheer numbers and in engagement levels. “Users rarely follow down,” the study authors concluded. “They mostly tend to follow up or across,” both in terms of the sheer number of connections and the amount of influence a person had.
The finding isn’t new — past research has also found support for the friendship paradox in social media — but it’s a bummer on a couple different levels. Beyond the obvious fact that no one likes being the loser of their friend group, the paradox also does a pretty good job of cutting away at our sense of illusory superiority, also known as the above-average effect: the tendency to believe that we are smarter, more beloved, or generally more wonderful than other people we know, whether or not that’s true.
“Most people tend to think that they are better than their friends when it comes to intelligence, memory, popularity, and other personal traits,” study co-author Naghmeh Momeni Taramsari, an engineering Ph.D. candidate at McGill, said in a the study’s press release. “This perception is false, at least in the context of online social networks. In reality, our friends really have more friends than we do, on average. Moreover, our friends are more active (post more material), and are more influential (their posts are viewed and passed on more often).”
Well. Now seems like as good a time as any to look in the mirror, take a few deep breaths, and repeat this mantra: It’s quality, not quantity, that matters for friends. Then go ahead and gather up those few quality friends, hold them close, and try to avoid reading any new friendship studies for a while. At this rate, they’re unlikely to tell you anything good.