How Online Interaction Shapes Everything From Baby Name Trends To Revolutions

In 1914, the names “Mary” and “Helen” were all the rage for baby girls. In 2014, it was “Emma” and “Olivia” — neither of which were even among the top eight girls’ names just 15 years earlier.

How does a large population come to a consensus about which names are acceptable, and which are no longer desirable? Baby name trends are a perfect example of how norms change over time within different social groups. And based on new research, it’s likely the structure of our social networks that determines whether new norms are spontaneously adopted.

Damon Centola, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, recently led a research project into the circumstances that give rise to new social conventions, from popular baby names to workplace norms to common slang terms. Using a Web-based model, Penn researchers tested how large populations come to be in agreement about ideas and codes of conduct — showing why, for instance, different regions of the country have different words for the same product (e.g. “soda” vs. “pop”) and how social movements like feminism have made their way into the mainstream and become popular.

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