You can’t always get what you want, but following a few pointers could boost your chances of successfully imploring a stranger for a favor — on the Internet, at least.

Stanford University’s Tim Althoff looked into human responses to requests for help by downloading 21,000 posts — three years’ worth of activity — from the help-oriented Reddit thread “Random Acts of Pizza.”

Random Acts of Pizza works on a relatively straightforward exchange principle, in which people who want pizza can post a story about their desire or need, and others using the site can chose to respond by ordering that person a pizza.

The question Althoff sought to answer: Which kinds of posts were more likely to earn a pie?

Image source:

Reddit’s Random Acts of Pizza community provided the data in a study of what tactics work in making online requests for help. (Image source: Reddit)

Althoff and his team analyzed the thousands of posts from Random Acts of Pizza, as well as looking at nearly 2 million additional posts from across Reddit to get a sense of users’ identities.

The results: story, status and the promise of payback matter, while being polite doesn’t make a difference.

  • Story matters.
    Althoff and his team identified five main types of narrative employed by Redditors seeking pizza, with most requests mentioning: money, a job, being a student, family or “craving” (meaning the requestor was drunk, celebrating or for some other relatively trivial reason just wanted some pizza).
    It turns out, no one cares if you’re a student. Narratives mentioning student status had no effect on the likelihood of pizza being provided, while craving narratives reduced the likelihood of pizza. Narratives that mentioned money, jobs or family, on the other hand, were more likely to be rewarded.
  • Pictures matter.
    Researchers chalked up the higher success rates of picture-having posts to the fact that “most pictures communicate need and urgency as well as establish an increased level of trust between requestor and giver.”
  • People are more likely to help those similar to themselves.
  • Redditors were more likely to help high-status users.
    “We find that Reddit users with higher status overall (higher karma) or higher status within the subcommunity (previous posts) are significantly more likely to receive help,” the researchers wrote.
  • Promising to pay back — or pay forward — the favor also boosted the likelihood that a user would get a free pizza.
    But less than 10 percent of the people who promised to “pay it forward” actually did so, the researchers noted, and less than six percent of users who promised to pay back the pizza did.

Preemptive appreciation, on the other hand, did not sway readers to offer aid.

The takeaway: If you need something from Internet users, tell them that you’re poor (but not a student!), promise to pay them back eventually and don’t be a newcomer. And don’t tell them if you’re drunk.

(H/T: Gizmodo)

Follow Zach Noble (@thezachnoble) on Twitter

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