Facebook updates spread bad moods virally

Study of anonymous status updates found that individuals reading gloomy updates were more likely to post something sad themselves

We all know that we’re affected by the moods of people we talk to face-to-face, but a new study suggests that online interactions have a similar influence. Read a lot of sad updates from friends online? Then don’t be surprised if you start feeling down yourself.

Researchers from the University of California and Facebook studied status updates on the popular social network that were identified as having a strong emotional slant – be it positive or negative – and looked to see if these had a knock-on effect on online friends.

The study looked at billions of anonymous status updates posted between January 2009 and March 2012, concentrating on gloomy updates prompted by (but not commenting on) poor weather.

By correlating these updates with historical weather information they found that negative posts on Facebook increased by 1.16 per cent in response to bad weather, while positive posts decreased by 1.19 per cent.

The researchers then looked at the posts of people who were friends with those influenced by the weather but who lived in cities where the outlook was little sunnier. Here they found that every negative post generated an additional 1.29 sad posts than normal among individuals’ friends.

Luckily though, they also found that happy posts had a stronger impact, generating an additional 1.75 positive posts amongst online friends. Neither of these numbers are great enough to suggest that social networks are creating easily influenced, volatile masses, but they do show that moods can spread online just as they do in real life.

"These results imply that emotions themselves might ripple through social networks to generate large-scale synchrony that gives rise to clusters of happy and unhappy individuals," wrote the authors in the study published in online journal Plos 1.

"New technologies online may be increasing this synchrony by giving people more avenues to express themselves to a wider range of social contacts," they said.

"As a result, we may see greater spikes in global emotion that could generate increased volatility in everything from political systems to financial markets."

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