Your Friends Really Are More Popular Than You

by Emma Cueto

You know that insecure, middle school feeling that all your friends are more popular than you? Unfortunately, it turns out that's actually true. And as wacky as it sounds — surely everyone's friends can't be more popular than they are, right? — science actually has an explanation for this somewhat displeasing paradox.

The "friendship paradoxm" as researchers like to call it, basically refers to the fact that on average, almost everyone's friends have more friends than they themselves do. It turns out that while most people have a relatively small number of friends, some people have a huge circle of friends. And because people with more friends, well, have more friends, it's highly likely that you're friends with at least one such person. Having them in your friend group, however, increases the average number of friendships that your circle of friends has — meaning if you take that average and compare it to your own number of friendships, you will probably have fewer friends.

And thus, we are all less popular than our friends.

A recent study shows that this phenomenon also exists on social media. Analyzing data from 5.8 million Twitter users, researchers found that people tend to follow users who are more popular than they are, both in terms of the number of followers an account has, and the amount of engagement the account gets. “Users rarely follow down,” the study authors explained. “They mostly tend to follow up or across.”

Which means that all of your friends are also more popular than you are on social media, too.

Of course, in actuality, the friendship paradox doesn't actually mean you're the least popular of your friend group. In fact, the paradox relies on the fact that most people actually have a pretty small number of friends. So saying, "Your friends are more popular than you," might be technically true in that the people you're friends with have a higher average number of friendships, but it's also misleading in that most of the people you're friends with probably have about as many friends as you do.

So you don't really need to freak out about being unpopular. Science is just trying to make you feel bad, I promise.

The fact that people replicate these same dynamics on social media is interesting, however — and this isn't the first study to find that the friendship paradox also exists online. After all, on social media everyone can theoretically have as many connections or follow as many accounts as they want. We can find and befriend people from anywhere in the world, from any background, at any age. And yet it seems that in many ways, things are still the same online as in real life.

I guess people are just people, even on the Internet.

Image: Giphy