Modelling the social dynamics of contagion and discovery using dynamical processes on complex networks


Complex networks have been successfully used to describe the social structure on top of which many real-world social processes take place. In this thesis, I focus on the development of network models that aim at capturing the fundamental mechanisms behind the dynamics of adoption of ideas, behaviours, or items. I start considering the transmission of a single idea from one individual to another, in an epidemic-like fashion. Recent evidence has shown that mechanisms of complex contagion can effectively capture the fundamental rules of social reinforcement and peer pressure proper of social systems. Along this line, I propose a model of complex recovery in which the social influence mechanism acts on the recovery rule rather than on the infection one, leading to explosive behaviours. Yet, in human communication, interactions can occur in groups. I thus expand the pairwise representation given by graphs using simplicial complexes instead. I develop a model of simplicial contagion, showing how the inclusion of these higher-order interactions can dramatically alter the spreading dynamics. I then consider an individual and model the dynamics of discovery as paths of sequential adoptions, with the first visit of an idea representing a novelty. Starting from the empirically observed dynamics of correlated novelties, according to which one discovery leads to another, I develop a model of biased random walks in which the exploration of the interlinked space of possible discoveries has the byproduct of influencing also the strengths of their connections. Balancing exploration and exploitation, the model reproduces the basic footprints of real-world innovation processes. Nevertheless, people do not live and work in isolation, and social ties can shape their behaviours. Thus, I consider interacting discovery processes to investigate how social interactions contribute to the collective emergence of new ideas and teamwork, and explorers can exploit opportunities coming from their social contacts.

PhD Thesis