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

Posted by M ws On Friday, January 18, 2013 0 comments
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.

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.

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