The Matthew Effect - linking and how things become viral in social media

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Symbol of St Matthew
Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

The Matthew Effect dates from the 1960s. It is the theory, first expressed by sociologist Robert K. Merton, that those who possess power and economic or social capital can leverage those resources to gain more power or capital. Put simply: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Or as it is expressed in the Gospel of St Matthew, from which the effect takes its name:

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.

So what does this have to do with social media? Well this great presentation and video from Torsten Henning Hensel explores the power of linking online and how the Matthew Effect can help us to understand how things become viral and spread online and in social media. As Hensel explains:

Thanks to the Matthew Effect, the already famous get more famous, the often quoted get more and more quoted…

It is easy to see how this transfers into social media - the more something is spread the more it will be spread even further by word of mouth. Imagine two pieces of content of equal quality, interest or importance. It is the content that has been linked to, retweeted, forwarded or otherwise referred to that is more likely to become viral. For Hensel, “Social media is a linking machine” and the more links you can get to a piece of content the more likely that content is to become viral when compared to a similar piece.

This is an interesting theory and a great attempt to deconstruct and to understand what makes something go viral. The presentation is Required Reading this week at FreshNetworks as it reminds us all of the importance of links.

Matthew Effect: The Power of Links
View more presentations from Torsten Henning Hensel.
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