Why do online opinions evolve differently to offline ones?

 Online opinions

The way in which opinions form, spread through societies and evolve over time is a hot topic among researchers because of their increasing ability to measure and simulate what’s going on.

The field offers some juicy puzzles that look ripe for picking by somebody with the right kind of insight. For example,  why do people bother to vote in elections in which they have little control over the result when a “rational” individual ought to conclude that it is not worth taking part.

A similar conundrum is why people contribute to online opinion sites such as Amazon‘s book review system or the Internet Movie Database’s (IMDB) ratings system. When there are already a hundred 5-star reviews, why contribute another?

Today Fang Wu and Bernardo Huberman at the HP Laboratories in Palo Alto present the results of their analysis of this problem. And curiously, it looks as if online opinions form in a subtley different way to offline ones.

The researchers studied the patterns of millions of opinions posted on Amazon and the IMDB and found some interesting trends. They say:

Contrary to the common phenomenon of group polarization observed offline, we measured a strong tendency towards moderate views in the course of time.

That might come as a surprise to anyone who has  followed the discussion on almost any online forum but Wu and Huberman have an idea how moderation seems to evolve.  They suggest that people are most likely to express a view when their opinion is different from the prevailing consensus because such a contribution will have a bigger effect on the group.

They tested the idea  by looking at the contributions of people who added detailed reviews against those who simply clicked a button. Sure enough, those who invest more effort are more likely to have an opposing view. It is these opposing views that tend to moderate future views.

By contrast, sites such as Jyte in which users can only click a button to give their opinion tend to show herding behaviour in which people copy their peers, just as they often do offline.

Wu and Huberman’s analysis raises more questions than answers for me. But they point out that the study of online opinions has been neglected until now.  That looks set to change.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0805.3537: Public Discourse in the Web Does Not Exhibit Group Polarization

4 Responses to “Why do online opinions evolve differently to offline ones?”

  1. Kent says:

    I completely disagree with everything about the article…

  2. Chris says:

    Kent, would you care to state why you disagree?

  3. Kent says:

    Chris, it was only a joke.

    “They suggest that people are most likely to express a view when their opinion is different from the prevailing consensus because such a contribution will have a bigger effect on the group.”

    “They tested the idea by looking at the contributions of people who added detailed reviews against those who simply clicked a button. Sure enough, those who invest more effort are more likely to have an opposing view. It is these opposing views that tend to moderate future views.”

  4. Brian H says:

    Kent;
    And I disagree with Chris’ disagreement with your right to disagree without explanation! Ironic interjection lives!

    🙂