Four hops on Facebook

By Kaushik Das Gupta
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

We are virtually closer, for good or bad


Every now and then, photographs of people Facebook thinks I should consider being friends with  show up on my page on the social networking site. I must confess that a few times I have been tempted to add a few such strangers to my friends list. But come on. Who are a bunch of geeks in Silicon Valley to tell me  I should  be friends with someone just because we have four—or even 46—common friends.  


Facebook now has an academic justification for trying to influence my virtual relationship. Data crunching by the social networking site's techies and researchers at the University of Milan shows that the degree of separation between any two people on Facebook is  4.7. In the 1960s, social psychologist Colin Mingram had suggested that there is a six degree separation between any two people in the world. The virtual world it seems is much smaller.


Media analyst and technology activist Cory Doctorow anticipated the small virtual world thesis four years ago in a vastly different context. About four years ago when Facebook used to be a place to share thoughts and photos with friends and family and maybe play a few stupid games that let you pretend you were a farmer or a cafe owner, Doctorow wrote that the more people get involved in social networking, the more they are likely to encounter people they’d rather avoid. He went on to theorise  the more often this happens, the more likely people are bound to abandon Facebook.


The prophecy hasn't turned true—not yet. I am not sure if we always want to avoid the people who pop up on our Facebook pages as friends of friends.  The site in fact has added a new term to our social relationship vocabulary: Facebook friend. Let me cite an example. A few days ago I asked a friend for some contacts for a project I was working on. He responded with a list, referring to one or two people as very good Facebook friends. He has never met them, and I am not sure he intends to do so in the near future.  


Today, Facebook is not just about not linking long lost friends. Friendships are made on social media. Facebook is not just a catalyst  in reducing the degree of separation between people: it's an agent. We will probably never meet many of the people on our Facebook pages. But that does not stop us from gossiping, sharing photographs or even discussing intellectual matters with them online.  


This is not to say that all social media associations remain virtual. Let me cite another example: a few years back when Orkut was the in thing in the social networking world, another of my friends began a virtual interaction with a group of street food enthusiasts. He drew me into the group, and before long we were a bunch of foodies looking for offbeat eating places in Delhi.


Of course, reams have now been written on Facebook's role in protests movements in different parts of the world this year.


Facebook has buckled on to a fundamental human urge: to communicate.  In times when people did not spend most of their time holed up in workspaces, pitched in front of computers or driving through excruciating traffic, they would banter over a meal at a pocket friendly cafeteria, or hang out with friends in a club, or discuss the performance of the country's cricket team while walking in a park. Cafes and pubs were once breeding grounds of political protests, even espionage. Like it or not, Facebook is today fast replacing—some would even argue it has replaced—these public places of yesteryears.  


But Facebook is fundamentally different from the public places of yesteryears: it's a commercial enterprise. In recent times, it has been criticised—rightfully so—for using subscriber behaviour to direct advertising. Your music preferences, employment information, reading preferences, what you did as a teenager, schools and universities you attended nicely hang onto Facebook databases to let advertisers target you.


But hold on. Open source techies are building blocks of an alternative social media, Diaspora for example. Perhaps in the near future we might be able to gossip over our boss's ludicrous dressing style and not have our social media home page cluttered with garment ads.



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