Washington, May 17 : Analysing how two e-mail petitions travelled to people's inboxes, experts have come to the conclusion that online messages do not spread like "viral" that is usually passed on by a person to people who come in contact with him/her.
Jon Kleinberg of Cornell University and David Liben-Nowell of Carleton College used a tree diagram to analyse how a petition in support of public radio and a petition in opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq spread within the last 10 years.
The researchers said that the messages had the common characteristic of being widely circulated because there were 316 copies of the public radio petition containing more than 13,000 signatures, and 637 copies of the Iraq petition with almost 20,000 signatures. Upon mapping how those messages travelled from recipient to recipient using a tree diagram, the researchers observed that the online messages had not spread like a virus, with each message producing many direct "descendents" in the tree diagram.
The researchers said that the data suggested that people were selective in forwarding messages to others in their social networks, and that the messages produced only a single descendent 90 per cent of the time.
The messages also rarely took the most direct route between two inboxes, even when two people were connected by a few degrees of separation.
"The chain letters themselves often got to people by highly circuitous routes. You could be six steps away from someone, and yet the chain letter could pass through up to 100 intermediaries before showing up in your inbox," Kleinberg said.
He further said that the findings of the study also suggested that it was not uncommon to receive a message more than once, for most individuals belonged to different social circles-for example a college student may receive a petition about a tuition increase from a classmate one day, from the president of a fraternity the next day, and from a cousin the following day.
Kleinberg and Liben-Nowell said that their findings indicated that online messages travelled in a less direct and more diffuse pattern than was previously assumed.
They said that messages could reach some groups of people very quickly, and take a relatively longer period of time to reach others, creating opportunities for the original message to be altered or abbreviated.
The researchers are continuing to examine how these messages travel though the Internet, and looking for people who saved a copy of either the public radio or Iraq invasion petitions with a full or partial list of signers.