Facebook 'Friends,' and Why We Should Lose the Scare Quotes

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With every click on Facebook, you leave a little trail of your social life. Now researchers are saying they can piece those clues together, and pick out who your closest friends are.

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Among friends there are countless hierarchies. Perhaps you have a tight-knit circle from college, another group that goes way back to high school or even earlier, and maybe other small, interlocking sets, each including a few very dear ones and many more mere buddies. Somewhere in there are your best friends, and you know who they are. So, as it turns out, does Facebook -- or at least it could, if it wanted.

On Facebook, all of these complex and differentiated relationships get collapsed -- flattened -- under the label "friend." But researchers at UC San Diego wanted to see whether it could figure out -- just from people's Facebook activity -- who their closest friends were. They asked a survey group to list their close friends and then, using a model based on comments, messages, wall posts, likes, photo tags, etc. tried to see if they could say whether any given pair of people were close. They could do so accurately 84 percent of the time. These Facebook clues are "successful proxies for such real-world tie strength."

Jason J. Jones, one of the study's lead authors, say the findings contradict the common belief that people use Facebook to keep in touch with those whom they would otherwise lose touch with and use other means of communication (such as the phone) for their closest relationships. Rather, Facebook is just another space in which our social lives take place. The researchers found that comments were the most revealing of a friendship's strength, followed by messages, wall posts, and likes. Least revealing were demographic information, such as having had the same employer or gone to the same school, and being invited to join the same Facebook groups. Additionally, the study's authors found that public interactions such as comments and wall posts were just as revealing as private messages.

"This is a useful study even if it comes from the 'duh' department," writes social-media theorist Nathan Jurgenson over email. "The notion that the Internet is, or ever really was, some other, cyber, space, is wrong headed." In other words, of course our Facebook interactions reveal the reality of our friendships -- they are part and parcel to our friendships. There aren't two separate spheres of online and offline, but one continuous reality, which is at various points augmented by technology -- the phone or Facebook, for examples -- or the tools of the voice, gestures, and facial expressions. Terms like "real world," "virtual world," and "IRL," which the study's authors rely on heavily, undermine a better understanding of this integration.

Jurgenson continues, "All this said, we should not use this study to say that the on and offline are the same. Face-to-face interaction and Facebook interaction give us a different sense of what is possible and impossible, what researchers often call the 'affordances' of these different ways to interact."

That's a point echoed by artist Benjamin Grosser, whose work has looked at Facebook's role in our culture, and who says that we should also keep in mind that Facebook is not itself a neutral space -- that the subtleties of its algorithms can shape which friends we interact with and how often we do so. "Facebook is a software system designed by humans, which means that it comes with biases and has both intended and unintended effects on those who use it," he told me.

"The question I would ask is not whether these quantifications of interactions on Facebook are predictive of who our friends are," Grosser added, "but more whether the ways that Facebook prescribes interaction are changing how our friendships develop." This is not to say that the effect is strong enough to actually change who our closest friends are, nor that this is in any way nefarious, he emphasizes, but just a reminder that Facebook doesn't merely capture a portrait of our social lives; it also contributes to what that portrait looks like.

This is all follows pretty neatly from Jurgenson's point that Facebook is a tool that augments our one reality, not a separate reality altogether. If we understand that Facebook is a space where our friendships occur and develop, we can begin to think about what the contours of that space do to us.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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