Facebook celebrated its 12th birthday on Thursday by congratulating its users on how far they’ve carried the social network since it made its debut.
The company earlier this week held a more intimate celebration of its anniversary at its main campus in Menlo Park, California.
That event included 18 members of the Facebook community, who traveled from places as disparate as Saudi Arabia and Louisiana to join the festivities. The guests all had stories to tell about how Facebook facilitated their offline connections, such as reunions and marriages.
However, Facebook wanted to celebrate with its community at large, so it kicked off Friends Day, aiming to include every Facebook user.
It’s what the most successful movements do, according to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The best movements find ways to keep things “focused on the needs of the community,” he said, and “that’s the whole point of Friends Day.”
In addition to releasing a video-editing tool that stitches users’ pictures into slideshows of their evolving relationships, Facebook celebrated the public portion of Friends Day by releasing updated figures on the social network’s declining degrees of separation.
Degrees of Separation
There’s an average of 3.57 people standing between the average Facebook user and the individuals most removed from them on the network.
The average user is roughly three and a half people away from their favorite and least favorite celebrities, their leaders, the heads of foreign governments, long-lost friends they haven’t yet reconnected with, and the life partner they’ve yet to meet.
Outside of Facebook, scientists and philosophers famously put the figure for degrees of separation at six. Facebook has driven down its number from 3.74 in 2011 to 3.57 today, but that’s not good enough for the company.
At this point, the best Facebook can aspire to is to increase the number of “weak ties” individuals have in their networks, suggested Syracuse University’s Jennifer Grygiel, assistant professor of communications at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
“Weak ties allow information to spread, help you get jobs and so on,” she told the E-Commerce Times, “but they are not going to help you the same way that strong ties will — those people you call when you’re having a really bad day.”
The company certainly has the tools and the know-how to coax its users into adding more weak ties to their circle of friends, said Karma Martell, president and founder of KarmaCom.
“Facebook’s ever-tweaked algorithms, which are always under fire from users and the industry alike, continue to perpetuate a fairly narrow circle of friend-influencers for its members,” she told the E-Commerce Times.
Timeline post are “graded” for popularity based on user interactions instead of the value of the content itself, Martell noted. “Therefore, everyone’s experience of their so-called ‘friends’ is edited, in my mind, in a quirky way.”
For Real or for Show?
There’s a cap to how many friends a person can handle, according to a recent study conducted by Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University.
For most people, that figure — known as the “Dunbar Number” — is 150.
It isn’t possible to maintain thousands of relationships, Grygiel agreed.
However, “making best friends isn’t the point — the point is for us to use Facebook more,” she said. “More connections means more posts, more notices, more shares, likes, data collection, and more power for Facebook and money for shareholders.”
There’s no doubt Facebook has proved useful for facilitating closer communications between family members, friends and acquaintances, said KarmaCom’s Martell.
However, its casual promotion of friendship has distorted society’s ideas about what it means to be popular and liked, she added.
“What’s more, as it bled into a quasi-business social media, individual business people and employer-employees have had to choose bosses, employees, and business colleagues and acquaintances as ‘friends’ in order to not offend,” said Martell.
Also among weak ties are judgmental family members, frenemies and so on, which many users keep in their networks to avoid worrying about the possible consequences of excluding them.
“That’s exhausting,” Martell observed. “I submit that managing Facebook friends has probably caused as much stress as it has joy.”
That doesn’t even address the proliferation of fake personas who friend Facebook users, she pointed out. It’s unclear if Facebook includes them in calculating its falling degrees of separation.
“Woo hoo! I guess that statistic is a benchmark of success for them,” Martell said, “meaning when there is one degree of separation they have reached their goal? Scary.”