Shopping for Friends

It feels like only yesterday when we had to physically go outside to make friends. Now we can do it from behind a desk! But is making friends online the same as making friends out in the world? There’s definitely more relaxed rules about who you can be friends with, and much easier to not be friends with someone, online. But are the social media algorithms giving you a better or worse choice of friends than if you went out to an event?

We start making friends from a pretty young age, at childcare, or kindergarten, or with our neighbours. Usually we are about the same age, similar interests, and live in the same areas to our friends at this age. When we get older we start to branch out a bit, and make friends with people in different suburbs who go to our school or are in our sports team. Then at University we start making friends with people from all over the country or the world. Each trip somewhere we can make new friends and the older we get the more diverse our friends become.

For someone who came into social media at the end of high school (yes I was one of the late people) I started by adding my school friends. As I met new people at University and when I travelled I added more diversity to my friends. But I physically met these people before I added them to my social media feeds. So, if I were someone who couldn’t go out and physically meet people, how would I find new friends through social media?

Say we have a large data set of social media users and whom they are friends with. Just looking at how often certain groups of people are friends of friends we can determine whom to add next. This type of analysis is often used for shopping baskets. When you have certain items in your basket another item can be suggested to you based on how often that item is seen with what you have already. So if we have a certain set of friends in our shopping basket we can ask ‘who do I add next’.

Say you come into a new founded Data Science Meet-up group (see right) because your friend Fred invited you. But you also happen to be friends with Marco. Now you ask ‘who do I add next’. And most likely you’ll have suggestions of Kyle and Alice because these are people who are in the same basket as your friends Fred and Marco. Now this is a pretty simplified way of suggesting friends but is very similar to how it works outside your computer, with one friend introducing you to someone new.

I am pretty sure that all social media uses much more complex algorithms to suggest friends than a simple shopping model. In order to get a better idea of who you should be friends with you’d want to take into account your profile details, because if your first friend is your Mum you may end up with a lot of older ladies with cats becoming your friends. That’s not a bad thing but you’d probably prefer making friends your own age and with more similar interests.

So once you take into account where you live, your age, where you work, your interests, where you started out, your University, all the cities you’ve lived in (see left), you can start to see that your suggested friends will become more diverse and could be people you’ve actually met or would have otherwise been friends with anyway, had you gone outside.

Social media as a replacement for being physically social is not always seen as the most advantageous life choice but it can have some big bonuses for people who just really prefer to not be physically social. Personally I prefer to catch-up with people in person, see how they’re going and give them my full attention, and not get countless Facebook game requests. I find it very refreshing and it gives my eyes a break from staring at screens. But, as I was recently told, it’s unusual for someone my age to not use social media.

So the next time you’re on social media, have a look at the friend or connection suggestions and see if you can see why they are being suggested to you. Look out for those suggestions of people you’ve never met before, you’ll probably find that you have a fair bit in common. But please don’t go adding random strangers; it’s easy to lie on the Internet!

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