Saturday, December 24, 2011

We're Better than Bacon

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You guys remember the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon thing that was going around a few years ago? As the theory goes, we're all separated from each other by no more than six people. That's kind of like saying that one of my friends and one of your friends has a third friend in common who can complete the link between us and introduce us to each other, no matter who you and I are.

This was based on some research done nearly a century ago by asking people to hand-deliver parcels.

The BBC recently publicized a report that Facebook had analyzed their users' friendships and found that there were LESS than six degrees separating us all. There are a little less than FOUR. That's a lot like saying you and I probably have a friend in common, or at least we each have a friend who knows one of the other's friends.

How did they figure this all out?

If you read the article I linked above, they'll tell you what they did, but I think they made a serious error.

They factored out the celebrity pages, which was smart, but did they factor out all the "FB-friends" people have?

There are a LOT of people who have a LOT of "friends" they don't actually know because nearly all FB games encourage their players to get additional friends to play. Most FB-gamers don't have many ACTUAL friends, and the ones they do have don't want to play the same games, or are tired of being assaulted by game requests. (I know I am.) So they go looking for strangers who are already playing the game and "friend" them. Both people will now be rewarded within the game they play.

On top of that, some people with a lot of ACTUAL friends don't want all those game-related posts and stuff cluttering up their profiles and pissing off their actual friends, so they create a second, game-only account with which they friend anyone and everyone. Many of these accounts bump into the 5000 friend limit.

5000 friends? There may be a handful of people who actually know that many people personally, but most of us can only handle about 50-300 actual friends. There's a hard-wired limit in most humans of about 150 friendships. You may know more people than that, but you're physically unable to maintain a meaningful relationship with them. Think about the people in your life; with how many do you maintain regular, meaningful contact? And how many are merely "acquaintances", or some lower level of familiarity? (Hint: if you don't know where they live and you don't have a standing invitation to come to their house any time you want, and you don't see them more often than once a week, they're not a friend, they're at best an acquaintance.)

If you're at the normal human max of 150 friends, probably no more than 1/4 to 1/3 of them use Facebook, meaning you've got 35-50 legitimate friends on Facebook. You've probably got double or triple that in acquaintances from work or your childhood you hardly spend any time with. These numbers jibe well with my experience, so we'll assume they're somewhat reasonable.

The BBC article states that in the test, the average number of friends each user had was 100. Above, though, we used the human max of 150. The average would be about half that, or 75, which means our other numbers are also cut in half. That means by OUR figuring, a person has 20-25 actual friends and 25-50 acquaintances, for a total average of about 60 people. This is about half what FB says is the average, so either there is rampant FB-friending for games going on (definitely true) or our numbers are off (easily possible), or, most likely, some combination of the two.

But let's say our numbers ARE right. What happens when OUR numbers are LESS THAN Facebook's numbers? The number of degrees goes UP. Fewer people means fewer links, means it takes more steps for one person to reach another.

The article also kindly stated some numbers from three years ago when there were fewer Facebook users. There were still plenty of Facebook games, which means there were still plenty of fake friends and fake accounts for playing those games, but not as many. I've only been on Facebook for a short time, but to my knowledge, the FB gaming boom happened just before I got there.

What that means is their old number is likely to be MUCH closer to the truth than their new number. That is, 4.28 is much more likely to be the actual number than 3.74 is, and I'd feel comfortable wagering that the actual number is higher still. Maybe 4.5. Maybe even as high as 5. That wouldn't surprise me.

What do you think? Share your opinion now.

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