The Matthew Effect in Social Networks

“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”
— Matthew XXV:29, KJV

The so-called Matthew Effect is well known in science. It is the idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, with eminent scientists tending to become even more eminent. It is to the point, for example, that some ethical eminent sorts, troubled by how they increasingly given credit for innovations with which they had minimal involvement, shy away from allowing their names to be added as umpteenth author on scientific papers.

The idea first appeared a well-known paper by sociologist Robert Merton, and it has gained wide currency ever since. In a slightly altered guise, the Matthew Effect pops up in a thought-provoking piece by Duncan Watts in today’s NY Times magazine. The gist: He summarizes a study of his where he compared musics tastes among an otherwise similar group of students who consider popularity lists, and another group who did not. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has paid attention to the ascendancy of Digg et al., the popularity lists tended to be uncorrelated with what people without access to those lists thought were the best pieces of music.

It is, as I said, thought-provoking stuff. While social networks can amplify overlooked ideas, they can also serve as a high-speed echo chamber, where things go ricocheting around faster than at any other time in previous history, creating bonanzas for more than a few objectively undeserving blogging boffins.