MIT Technology Review has a summary of a fascinating recent study on the behavior of networks, and how they can lie to us, or at least make it seem like a majority of people believe something is common when it is not actually the case. The study, conducted by Kristina Lerman and others at the University of Southern California, also provides insight into how some things can go viral and spread like wildfire while similar content or ideas can't seem to get off the ground.
Basically, the study examined how ideas spread on networks with complex connections. If a number of people who have an average or lower number of connections (Facebook friends, Twitter followers, etc.) post or share something, it probably won't go very far, because of the lack of connections. But, if a few of the people who have a very large number of connections share or post something, it is far more likely to spread. This may seem obvious, but what is counter-intuitive is that the number of people with large followings needed to create the effect is actually incredibly small.
The article gives the example of a network of 14 people. Most have a few connections to others, but a few have a very large number of connections to almost all the other people in the network. If just 3 of the people in the network (the ones with a large number of connections) share something, to other people on the network it can suddenly seem like everybody is seeing and talking about it.
The authors of the study call it the 'majority illusion.' The ideas, whether they are memes or pictures or anything else, shared by just a few of those people with large followings will, overall, look downright common (one could even say 'viral') not because a majority of people are sharing it, because the people sharing it have a large number of connections.
The article provides the excellent example of how on Facebook, other people on the average have many more friends than you do, simply because a small number of Facebook users have an extraordinarily high number of friends, throwing off the curve. It's a common enough occurrence that it has a name, the 'power law.' This law, when applied to social networks, can make it seem like everyone is talking about something or believes something when it's just a small number of powerful users.
In a way, this thinking has already been addressed by marketers in the form of influencer marketing (although the MIT article refers to them by the much-more-fun moniker influencerati) but also provides insight as to why this type of marketing doesn't always work, because one influencer plugging a brand seems like just that, a plug. The key is not just to get an influencer to endorse you, but to get several of them to do so around the same time. This will help create the 'majority illusion,' and have a much more viral effect.