Picture this: You're at a party, and your good friend introduces you to one of their friends. You two hit it off, and boom - a new friend! You've just become friends with a friend of a friend. In real life, this is a common occurrence. On Facebook, a friend of a friend isn't necessarily an actual friend.
A new study from Pew Internet discovered this and an array of other interesting facts about peoples' Facebook friendships. The researchers found that most peoples' friend lists were not very interconnected. In a friend list with a density of 1, everyone knows everyone. On Facebook the density is quite low at .12 with a maximum density of .42, which means that your chances of knowing a friend of a friend on Facebook fall between 12% and 42%. In its its S-1 filing on Wednesday, Facebook toted 100 billion friendships. What it probably meant to say was 100 billion connections, many of which are dormant.
To understand the friend ties idea, here's an example. Say you have 10 friends; this means that the number of possible friendship ties among everyone in network is 45. The average Facebook user has 245 friends, which means there are 29,890 possible friendship ties in the network. With an average density of .12 and a total number of 245 friends, that means there are only 12% of 29,890 friendship linkages between "friends." A 1992 study by social network scholars found that offline social ties had a density of .36, or three times the density size of Facebook's.
"We suspect that Facebook networks are of lower density because of their ability to allow ties that might otherwise have gone dormant to remain persistent over time," the study says. Those ties that should have gone dormant are the people who you've Facebook friended from grade school, middle school, high school and other pubescent times in life. These are the people whose friend requests you naïvely and curiously accepted. This is where the Facebook "drama" potentially begins. "Facebook is a giant emotional locker," writes Andy Kessler on the Wall Street Journal.
"We expect that new Facebook users typically start with a core group of close, interconnected friends," the study says."But over time their friend list becomes larger and less intertwined, particularly as they discover (and are discovered by) more distant friends from different parts and different times in their lives."
The study also reports a curious finding: People are more likely to be friends with people who have more friends than they do. They are less likely to become friends with people who have less friends than them. Hence, the popular kid syndrome: Everyone wants to be friends with the popular kid, and few willingly try to buddy up with the loner who sits alone at lunch.
Tagging friends in Facebook photos is the only activity that the study says is associated with having more close ties. These people tend to be friends who the user interacts with both online and offline. This does not account for those awkward photo taggings that happen on the fly, without a user's permission. Lifehacker's Jason Chen argues that no, you shouldn't tag someone in a photo without their permission. For if someone is truly your friend on- and offline, they'll show some rexpect by first asking if you'd like to be tagged in the photo they're about to upload. When it comes to more innocuous taggings, such as a status update or photo, permission isn't completely necessary, but it's still quite welcome.
The study reinforces findings from past research, which suggest that heavy Facebook users are more trusting than others.