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Information flow reveals prediction limits in online social activity

James P. Bagrow, Xipei Liu, Lewis Mitchell

posted on 23 August 2017

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Modern society depends on the flow of information over online social networks, and popular social platforms now generate significant behavioral data. Yet it remains unclear what fundamental limits may exist when using these data to predict the activities and interests of individuals. Here we apply tools from information theory to estimate the predictive information content of the writings of Twitter users and to what extent that information flows between users. Distinct temporal and social effects are visible in the information flow, and these estimates provide a fundamental bound on the predictive accuracy achievable with these data. Due to the social flow of information, we estimate that approximately 95% of the potential predictive accuracy attainable for an individual is available within the social ties of that individual only, without requiring the individual's data.