Why “Your Facebook friends have more friends than you”

Here is an overview of an interesting quirk on Facebook: your Facebook friend likely has more friends than you do.

It’s just the digital reflection of what’s known to sociologists as the “friendship paradox.” In 1991, sociologist Scott Feld found that, generally speaking, any person’s friends tend to be more popular than they are. The reason, he said, is fairly simple: people are more likely to be friends with someone who has more friends than someone who has fewer friends.

This is true on Facebook as well, the study found. A small number of people are isolated and don’t appear on many lists, but popular people show up again and again.

Another interesting result of the study finds that Facebook users tend to get more messages, friend requests, likes and photo tags than they give, pointing to the existence of a few Facebook “power-users” driving the site’s activity.

Keith Hampton, a professor at Rutgers University and the lead author of the report, said that power users make up around 20-30 percent of Facebook’s users, and that there are three specialties within these power users. Some users send a lot of friend requests, while others most frequently “like” posts and pictures. A third kind of power user tends to make a lot of photo tags.

If you put this in social network terms, there are certain people who are nodes in the Facebook network. These nodes have more friends and are centers of information, comments, pictures, likes on Facebook, between different groups and users.

If we know this is how the world works, you could imagine how this information could be put to use. Perhaps Facebook puts information from these nodes more often in your news feeds. Perhaps marketers hope to specifically target these people as they can have a wide reach. Perhaps other users could look to connect with these nodes, knowing that these people could help them get to information (like jobs? social events?) that a less connected user could not.

I was thinking about this as I was trying to explain network behavior to some students in class recently. Are users of Facebook aware of where they fall within their networks, meaning are they nodes themselves or far from the center of activity? If they are aware of this, does this change their behavior? Would it be beneficial for Facebook to show users where they fall in their network with the chance that it might boost their online activity levels?

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