How does your Facebook garden grow?

September 22nd, 2009

An article in the Globe this Sunday reported on an MIT student project:

Using data from the social network Facebook, they made a striking discovery: just by looking at a person’s online friends, they could predict whether the person was gay. They did this with a software program that looked at the gender and sexuality of a person’s friends and, using statistical analysis, made a prediction.

Well, yeah. People in general tend to like to hang out with others who are like themselves. This isn’t really news, and I’m not sure why the article pitched it as a privacy issue:

Discussions of privacy often focus on how to best keep things secret, whether it is making sure online financial transactions are secure from intruders, or telling people to think twice before opening their lives too widely on blogs or online profiles. But this work shows that people may reveal information about themselves in another way, and without knowing they are making it public. Who we are can be revealed by, and even defined by, who our friends are: if all your friends are over 45, you’re probably not a teenager; if they all belong to a particular religion, it’s a decent bet that you do, too. The ability to connect with other people who have something in common is part of the power of social networks, but also a possible pitfall. If our friends reveal who we are, that challenges a conception of privacy built on the notion that there are things we tell, and things we don’t.

Did we not already know this? I mean, just keeping to the “gay” thing, if I’m gay and in the closet, even pre-Facebook, I would probably make sure that I was not seen coming out of gay bars, and I wouldn’t hang out publicly with gay-rights activists. People are judged by their friends.

Which I suppose means, if you don’t want anyone to know your sexual preference, political beliefs, religion, or sports team affiliation — why are you even on Facebook? But if you want cover, you should, obviously, get as varied a group of FB friends as you can. “Celebrate Diversity: It Keeps People from Knowing What You’re Up to.” Now there’s a slogan that might just work.

I’m not sure what the software would say about me, except that I’m probably a mobbed-up farmer living in Fairyland. Which I suppose could be considered true in some highly metaphorical sense, but what couldn’t?

Anyway, when I posted this question on my boston.com blog about whether or not one should refrain from posting happy updates on FB when a friend is in mourning, I got to thinking about the shape of social networks of FB users. What does your network look like, if you’re on FB? How connected are your FB friends with each other? Does your network look more like this:
FBnet2
Or like this:
fbnet1
If you have “clumps” of friends on FB who all know each other, what are the clumps?

This struck me in relation to the mourning question because I think one element of that is how interconnected the friend in question is to the rest of your network. I have two major “clumps” of Facebook friends: my maternal cousins, and some friends of theirs; and friends from my Kansas City theater days. I think if anything seriously bad were to go down for anyone in those two clumps, the social obligation around it — as regards Facebook only, obviously — would feel different to me than if something bad went down for a friend who isn’t connected to anyone else. Because it wouldn’t just be a matter of the affected person’s feelings, but of everyone else in that particular sub-network.

How does your Facebook garden grow? Are you the hub, or are you one hub of many? What are your “clumps”? And have you ever had the experience of realizing that friends from different contexts knew each other on Facebook?


5 Responses to “How does your Facebook garden grow?”

  1. veronica on September 22, 2009 9:19 pm

    the weirdest connection i ever made was that the ex-girlfriend of a guy I knew in college was dating someone I went to high school with. just to give some context, I went to HS in north central MA but went to college in NYC. This guy from HS now goes to grad school at Yale, where he is in the same program as the friend of his girlfriend. Now i start noticing him as a mutual friend of college “friends” and it’s really weird.

    My clumps are as follows: family (nuclear and extended), high school, undergrad, grad, externship, and AMC. So the HS friends all know each other, the undergrad friends know each other, the grad friends don’t really know each other (unless we did our externship together). The AMC theaters friends know each other. There are rare connections b/w groups…but for the most part all my groups are independent of each other.

  2. car on September 23, 2009 8:28 am

    One of the ways you can visualize your clumps on facebook is the “friend wheel” app. It’s a fairly old one, but I like the way it links everyone by who is friends with whom. The weirdest linkage I’ve seen is the college roommate of my spouse as friends with the college roommate of one of my friends’ spouses, each of whom went to schools on other sides of the state. Turned out they had one mutual friend, one from knowing her in college, the other from knowing her in high school, and had met once at a party she had.

  3. Carolyn on September 23, 2009 9:47 am

    I just did my wheel, thanks car, and I found what I expected: a small church clump, and a giant high school clump, the people I have twenty or more mutual friends with (of 130 or so.) The rest are near isolates, either because I’ve been more selective and waited for them to friend me (the neighborhood before high school, church camp, college) or by nature (people whose lives I wanted to follow when they left where I work, who didn’t work together.)

    That ap is the second place I’ve seen ‘embiggen’, Robin; you were the first.

    I think I’d like to see the geographical map, too, though I don’t think fb’s would be perfectly accurate, because the posted home town can be someplace you don’t live. But I have some mental clusters from common comments–too much homework in Texas, too much rain in Atlanta.

  4. Alyson on September 24, 2009 11:54 am

    Oooohh, the wheel is fun!

    I have a grammar school group, a high school group, a college group, family, after college and work. Some of them overlap slightly, for instance, a former co-worker in New Orleans, who is also a former roommate, is friends with a few of my college friends and I’m friends with a few of her high school friends.

    One of the weirdest connections I have is that a former roommate of mine (T) has a former roommate (A) who went to high school with my college roommate (J). A & J are from the same south shore town, A, J, and I are all from MA and T is from California and also younger than all of us. We discovered this crazy connection one night when J was over for dinner, while T still lived with us, and A stopped by. Also, J is friends with a former co-worker of my husband who currently lives in California. My husband and I, aside from the meeting and marrying part, have no real connection to each other – except that we, too, are former roommates (of the platonic variety, we didn’t get married and stop living together, just swapped out the term ‘roommate’ for ‘*insert appropriate sex*friend’, ‘betrothed’ and then ‘spouse’.)

  5. Robin on September 24, 2009 4:15 pm

    Chiming in praise for “The Wheel!” A very cool app.

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