Share It Forward: How 1 Facebook Status Spread Across the World

Hundreds of thousands of people paid it forward with Facebook—or, at least, said they would.
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Kindness spreads like a network, as in this idealized napkin drawing. ( marekuliasz / Shutterstock )

According to the Pay-It-Forward-Day authorities, today is Pay-It-Forward Day. The “holiday” celebrates of little acts of kindness between friends and strangers: If one person does something kind for another, the recipient of that kindness will be kind to someone else, and kindness will move across the world.

Think of it as an unfolding social network, of sorts, of kindness. 

Naturally, a social network has turned its attention to the concept. Facebook’s always-intriguing data science team has looked at a popular, pay-it-forward-related status update from the beginning of this year. The status passed across more than 800,000 profiles and was translated into nine languages before the team stopped tracking it at the end of January.

You may have seen it pass across your feed. First appearing in the final days of December 2013, it looked something like this:

To start this year off in a loving way I'm participating in the Pay-it-Forward initiative... The first five people who comment on this status with "I'm in" will receive a surprise from me at some point in this calendar year- anything from a book, a ticket, a visit, something home-grown or made, a postcard, absolutely any surprise! There will be no warning and it will happen when the mood comes over me and I find something that I believe would suit you and make you happy. These five people must make the same offer in their FB status and distribute their own joy. Simply copy this text onto your profile, (don't share) so we can form a web of connection and kindness. Let's do more nice and loving things for each other in 2014, without any reason other than to make each other smile and show that we think of each other.

It’s a pleasant thought, perfect for the chipper ethos of Facebook sharing. The data science team looked at whether people who commented on one’s status then posted a version of their own. 97.1 percent of new pay-it-forward statuses, they found, followed a comment on another user’s version of the status.  (They can’t know, of course, whether the promised kindness actually followed the statuses.)

When rendered as a network, the first couple days of pay-it-forward shares looked something like this:

Facebook Data Science

In the network graph above, English-language versions of the status are blue, German green, and French red. You may notice that the three nets are largely separate: The Facebook team estimates that the three similar translations of the status arose separately and “seemingly independently, likely from an earlier spread of the cascade.”

Pay-it-forward statuses spread beyond that, wrapping around the Earth. Here’s a visualization of the next month of shared statuses. If several pay-it-forward statuses linked cities, they’re represented with an arc:

Facebook Data Science

Over the next month, the status’s spread in English became too large to visualize. We can look at the eight other languages it passed into, though. What strikes me about this graph is that sharing tended to stay within languages—while there are definite links across languages, it clustered in language groups.

Facebook Data Science

According to the team, the status stayed mostly in the United States, where more than half a million users participated. (The next largest county is Canada, with only 66,000 participants.) But while the U.S. dominated shares overall, American cities weren’t the most popular: London and Melbourne took that prize, with almost 9,000 and 8,000 pay-it-forward shares, respectively. So city, then, really dominated the eventual 815,000 shares that status would get. 

The team’s most interesting finding, to me? Responses in comment responses to the status varied by language. Writes the team:

In English, "address" is over-expressed (26X/87X), with the poster asking others to send "your address(es)" in a private message, so that the surprise gift can be sent. But in Spanish and Italian, "una/la visita" is over-expressed (32/24X), indicating that the gift may be delivered in person.

Also, I should note: While the meme was popular, it did not spread like wildfire through all of Facebook. Yesterday, the goliath social network reported that it has some 802 million daily active users.

And today isn’t only Pay-It-Forward Day, by the way. It’s also the World Day for Laboratory Animals and the feast day of the 8th-century monk Ecgberht of Ripon. He hailed from Northumbria in England, and the Church remembers him because—unlike all his traveling companions—he didn’t die of the plague.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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