Facebook Is Pretty Much Like the Rest of the World

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A student-only subset of the Reed College Facebook network. Different node shapes and colors indicate different class years. /Physica A

Does the Internet foster new kinds of social connections, or does it simply reflect the biases and trends that we know from the offline world?

When it comes to social networks -- and to Facebook, in particular -- much of the evidence points to the finding that Facebook is, pretty much, the digital equivalent of analog society. There's the most obvious thing: that most people tend to draw their Facebook friends from analog social networks. And there are the more subtle -- and troubling -- findings: that, for one example, race and class affinities tend to express themselves in social networks. When MySpace was still a thing, for example, there was a sharp race and class divide between Facebook and that site.

Here's one more piece of evidence for the "Facebook: It's Just Like the Real World!" thesis. In a study just published in the journal Physica A, a group of researchers analyzed Facebook data from university students across 100 schools. The data represent a snapshot of a single day in 2005, during the early (and .edu-address-required) days of the network. The data set allowed the researchers -- Amanda L. Traud of North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Peter J. Mucha of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; and Mason Porter of the University of Oxford -- to compare social structures across different educational institutions: small versus large, public versus private, single-sex versus co-ed, etc.

While the researchers found, unsurprisingly, a high degree of variety and discrepancy when it came to different school networks' use of Facebook, they found one definitive trend: Students' closest social clusters were determined not by their overall interests, but rather by their class year. On Facebook, I -- a freshman, say, who loves Kierkegaard, Wilco, and Tootsie -- am much more likely to have a strong connection with a fellow freshman, rather than with a senior who also loves Kierkegaard and Wilco and Tootsie. Some of that preferential affinity is accounted for by universities' general emphasis on graduation year as a definitive factor in campus social life, and by the fact that, in 2005, Facebook was much more determined by the social assumptions of the university setting than it is today. But it's also yet more evidence that offline drives online.

And there's something, actually, just a little bit sad about all that. One dream of the Internet, after all, has been the promised democratization not just of knowledge, but of social interaction. Online, we thought, we had the opportunity to create a social space where the contingencies of circumstance -- geography, class, wealth, and even more personal factors like race and gender and age -- would be mitigated by much more profound vectors of human connection: shared interests and curiosities and joys. The superficialities of circumstance were supposed to be subverted by the things that really mattered, and identity was supposed to be a function of self-expression as much as, simply, self. Nobody knows you're a dog, and all that.

The Facebook findings provide yet more evidence of a dying dream. For all the obvious good that the Internet offers to us, it doesn't change who we are or eliminate the constructs of class, race, gender, or age.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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