Have you ever felt like everyone else has so much more to be thankful for? Check your Facebook or Instagram feed: Your friends seem to dine at finer restaurants, take more exotic vacations and have more accomplished children. They even have cuter pets!
Rest assured, it’s an illusion, one that’s rooted in a property of social networks known as the friendship paradox. The paradox, first formulated by sociologist Scott Feld, states that “your friends are more popular than you are, on average.” This property combines with other peculiarities of social networks to create an illusion.
What the friendship paradox means is this: If I asked you who your friends are, and then I met them, on the whole I would find them to be better socially connected than you. Of course, if you are an exceptionally gregarious person, the paradox won’t apply to you. But for most of us it is likely to hold.
While this paradox can occur in any social network, it is rampant online. One study found that 98 percent of Twitter users subscribe to accounts that have more followers than they themselves do.
The mathematics of friendships
Although it sounds strange, the friendship paradox has a simple mathematical explanation.
Each person’s social circle of friends is different. Most of us have some friends, and then there are well-connected people like David Rockefeller, the onetime CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank, whose address book included more than 100,000 people!
On social media, celebrities like Justin Bieber can have more than 100 million followers. It’s this small group of hyperconnected people – people with many friends, who are part of your social circle – that increases the average popularity of your friends.
This is the mathematical double whammy at the heart of the friendship paradox. Not only does the extraordinary popularity of people like Justin Bieber skew the average popularity of friends for anyone they are connected to, but even though people like him are rare, they also appear in an extraordinary number of social circles.