Social science tips for “how to make friends in a new city”

An advice piece in Harvard Business Review about making friends in an unfamiliar place includes several connections to social science research:

Rediscover weak or dormant ties. As we go through life, relationships fade in and out of view. You may have stayed in the same city up until now, but your friends and  former colleagues may have not. As you look toward your new destination, consider the weak ties (acquaintances) and the dormant ties (old friends or colleagues) in your existing social circle. Check your social media channels and alumni databases from school or past employers. You may find that you already know someone who lives in your new city. With this knowledge, you’ll have the opportunity to reach out to them before you move, and set a date to reconnect once you arrive.

Ask existing friends and colleagues for help. This one may sound obvious, but many of us only reach out to our closest friends when we need help making new connections. To get the most out of your current network, make sure you cast a wide net. One of the most powerful questions you can ask is, “Who do you know in ______?” In this case, the blank space is your new city, but it can also be an industry, a company, or anything you’re looking to explore. Before you move, take the time to ask many friends and colleagues if they know anyone worth meeting in your new city. Most people will be able to think of a few names. Even if each person can only think of one, you’ll still walk away with a good list of potential contacts.

Seek out shared activities. Once you land in your new city, it may be tempting to seek out meetups, networking events, and the like. But research shows that events structured around meeting new people often fail. Attendees generally spend time conversing with people they already know, or with people who are similar to themselves. A better option is to participate in a “shared activity,” an event where there is a bigger objective at hand and achieving that objective requires interdependence. You’re much more likely to make new and diverse connections at events that give you a reason to get to know the person next to you. So, how do you find a shared event? They come in all shapes and sizes, from community service to classes to amateur sports leagues. Choose what you’re most comfortable with.

The key emphasis in the advice above is to activate old networks and work your way into new ones. Making use of weak ties, people you may know from the past or acquaintances or friends of friends, could help ease your way into new social circles. It may not necessary be easy to reach out to those weak ties, particularly the extent of a connection was a social media friendship or following, but this would still probably be preferable to cold calling people. To start participating in a new network, the advice suggests finding an activity which allows people to organize themselves by interest. This draws on the homophily often present in social networks: people tend to congregate with people like them. This particular advice about common interests is likely even more true today than in the past; rather than joining civic organizations or relationships based on geography and proximity, people today tend to sort by interests.

Even with these tips, it is likely a disorienting experience for many when they move to a new community. Americans are fairly mobile people and I wonder if the American tendencies toward extroversion and public friendliness are intended to help make these social transitions easier.

The social connectedness of DuPage County, IL to other locations

Data from Facebook in 2016 allowed researchers to look at where users’ friends are located. Here is the data from DuPage County, Illinois:

SocialConnectednessDuPageCountyIL

The researchers argue distance matter and there are some other broad patterns in the data:

Coastal cities like New York, Washington, San Francisco, Boston and Los Angeles do exhibit close ties to one another, showing that people in counties with similar incomes, education levels and voting patterns are more likely to be linked. But nationwide, the effect of such similarity is small. And the pull of regionalism is strong even for major cities. Brooklynites are still more likely to know someone on Facebook near Albany or Binghamton than in the Bay Area…

State lines are powerful boundaries in binding nearby places. For many counties, as the maps illustrate, the likelihood of friendship drops off sharply at state borders. And counties within a given state tend to be strongly connected to one another. This is particularly striking in Michigan, where counties near the Indiana and Ohio state line are more closely tied to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula than to out-of-state counties closer by…

History is another significant force in shaping these networks. Decades-old migration patterns can help explain why some distant counties are disproportionately connected today. Northern cities like Chicago and Milwaukee still retain close ties to Southern counties along the Mississippi River, where African-American workers who were part of the Great Migration starting a century ago left communities for industrial jobs in the North…

In other parts of the country, physical geography forms a kind of social barrier. Friendship links from Belmont County, Ohio, extend east but don’t cross the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania or the Blue Ridge range in Virginia. In Scott County, Ark., friendships do cross state lines, into Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas. But they don’t cross the Mississippi River to the east. In Nassau County, N.Y., the likelihood of friendship links declines steeply off Long Island…

Other county outliers in the data can be explained by distinct roles some communities serve: Onslow County, N.C., which is connected to much of the country, is home to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.

Based on the map of DuPage County plus discussion of the broad patterns, here is what I notice about the Chicago collar county:

1. More ties in the other suburban counties and then within Illinois.

2. There are a number of Midwestern ties spread across adjacent states.

3. DuPage County has more distant ties to a few other places. I’m guessing Florida and Arizona show up as retirement destinations. Both Summit County, Colorado and Teton County, Wyoming show up – are these popular vacation destinations? (Both of these counties have relatively small populations.)

4. There are not many ties to the Northeast though other metropolitan areas show ranging from Seattle to Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Nashville.

On the whole, DuPage County is pretty wealthy and I would guess fairly mobile. The Facebook connections by location might support that though there are still many Chicago area and Illinois relationships.

Claim: popular 90’s TV shows prompted people to move to cities

This is not the first time I’ve seen this argument: Friends wasn’t just entertainment…it helped make cities cool again.

I tested out my hypothesis—that “Friends” triggered the proliferation of boutique coffee shops across the nation—on Facebook a few days ago, and found some agreement. My good friend Kenyon Farrow, an award-winning writer and advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness, who’s based in D.C., was with me on this, writing, “I think ‘Friends’ (and ‘Seinfeld’) are totally responsible for marketing cities to young white suburbanites, [which] helped fuel the market-demand side for gentrification to take place in the ‘90s and 2000’s.

”

That was about the extent of agreement on my “Friends” theory, though—my barista cred all damned to hell now. But others in the debate made the gentrification connection Farrow offered. Wrote Ben Adler, who I worked with at Grist: “Americans have increasingly become alienated by the social isolation of suburban, car-dependent life. That’s fueled both the urban gentrification that brings the cafes, and the cafes themselves.”

For others on our Facebook thread, the secret of the coffeehouse’s mainstream appeal was pure and simple: It’s just “a good idea,” wrote my buddy Justice Rajee, a family advocate at the Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center. “Having someplace to sit have a beverage and do what you need when you can’t go home is good.”

This is the reverse of the argument I’ve been thinking about in recent years: the proliferation of popular TV shows depicting happy suburban life in the 1950s and 1960s helped push Americans to the suburbs. At face value, this might seem to make sense as Americans are influenced by what they watch on TV (and they watch a lot of it). However, I have some data that suggests the connection is not as clear. (There is an upcoming paper coming out of this; more on the particular topic when it sees the light of day.)

Generally, we don’t know as much as you might think about how much television influences people’s behaviors. The argument for Friends or Seinfeld and cities suggests people viewed the shows and wanted to emulate that lifestyle. Is the link that direct? If we asked people why they moved to the city, would they cite a television show or would they be more likely to mention things like jobs, cultural opportunities and the lifestyle, or housing options? The influence of television may indeed be subtle which begs the question of how we might uncover as social scientists the empirical link between viewing and deciding where to live. If seeing things on TV mattered, wouldn’t others be turned off by city life with so many crime and police procedural shows?

Your friends have more friends that you

A sociologist discovered a law about how many friends your friends have:

Twenty-five years ago, sociologist Scott Feld demonstrated that on average, your friends have more friends than you do. This sounds impossible, but it’s true…

Go ahead, draw your own social networks and do the math for yourself. You’ll find that Feld’s law holds true for almost any network you can think of. That’s odd, but why should you care?

One reason to care is that Feld’s law explains that feeling many of us have that we’re less popular than our friends. Odds are, you’re right. Don’t take it personally; it’s just the way societies work.

Another reason to care is that Feld’s law is also true for any relationship in which people share something with one another. People share needles in the opiate epidemic facing Maine. People have shared sexual relations since the dawn of humanity. These kinds of sharing can also share deadly viruses like AIDS, hepatitis B and syphilis.

See the abstract of the 1991 article here.

It is interesting that this newspaper piece focuses on the dangerous aspects of this. Danger and death are needed to catch the attention of readers who might not otherwise care about sociological findings? What about normal life when it seems your friends are more popular than you? Rest assured; that is just the way the math works out.

How many Facebook friends can you depend on?

A new study suggests most Facebook friends cannot be depended on in times of trouble:

Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, undertook a study to find out the connection between whether people have lots of Facebook friends and real friends.

He found that there was very little correlation between having friends on social networks and actually being able to depend on them, or even talking to them regularly.

The average person studied had around 150 Facebook friends. But only about 14 of them would express sympathy in the event of anything going wrong…

Those numbers are mostly similar to how friendships work in real life, the research said. But the huge number of supposed friends on a friend list means that people can be tricked into thinking that they might have more close friends.

The last paragraph seems key: online or offline, people have a relatively small number of close relationships. As the saying goes, you learn who your friends are in times of trouble. Simply having a connection to someone – whether knowing them as an acquaintance or friending them on social media – is at a different level than having regular contact or providing mutual support. Using the words “real” and “fake” friends tries to get at that but it would be better to use terms close friend, acquaintance, family member, or other terms to denote the closeness of the relationship. Of course, when Facebook chose to use the term friends for everyone you link to on Facebook, this was very intentional and an attempt to prompt more connections and openness.

The Dunbar here is the same researcher behind Dunbar’s number that suggests humans can have around 150 maximum stable relationships.

Just how many fake Twitter accounts are there? And why does it matter?

Twitter and experts disagree on how many fake Twitter accounts there are:

In securities filings, Twitter says it believes fake accounts represent fewer than 5% of its 230 million active users. Independent researchers believe the number is higher.

Italian security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli say they found 20 million fake accounts for sale on Twitter this summer. That would amount to nearly 9% of Twitter’s monthly active users. The Italian researchers also found software for sale that allows spammers to create unlimited fake accounts. The researchers decoded robot-programming software to reveal how easy it is for spammers to control the convincing fakes…

Jason Ding, a researcher at Barracuda Labs who has studied fake Twitter followers for more than a year, also thinks Twitter underestimates the prevalence of fake accounts on the network. Mr. Ding says users don’t understand how active and realistic the fakes can appear.

Read on for more details how the battle between the black market and Twitter’s use of algorithms to discover fake accounts is going. Even if the average user can’t quite figure out who is a real or fake user, the consequences are real:

The fake accounts remain a cloud over Twitter Inc. in the wake of its successful initial public offering. “Twitter is where many people get news,” says Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. “If what is trending on Twitter is being faked by robots, people need to know that. This will and should undermine trust.”

According to this article and others, it appears that fake accounts are most commonly used for promotional purposes, whether for Washington politicians or entertainment stars. How harmful are these fake accounts which might be used to boost the number of followers or retweet material?

On the other hand, Turkle suggests these fake accounts could easily mask what is really happening on Twitter. Perhaps they are pushing certain Twitter trends, which then influences other users. Or, perhaps these fake Twitter accounts could push false news reports, which could have some different consequences depending on the situation. It could be worse if a large number of users find out they were interacting with or trying to engage with fake accounts.

While I agree with Turkle that this does present an important trust issue, I wonder if it would take some high profile case before this becomes a real issue. Imagine someone is able to use a set of fake accounts to pull off a terrorist act or throw off the government.

Possible reactions when your friend buys a McMansion

One post at DC Urban Moms and Dads provides a list of possible reactions when your friend buys a $2 million McMansion:

1.) I am very happy for the person.
2.) I hope they invite me back again because I LOVED the swimming pool or the sauna or the gym or the movie theatre or the gourmet kitchen etc. etc. And now I can enjoy it for free!
3.) How in the world did they afford this place? Are they smuggling drugs? Are they internet hackers? Something is fishy!
4.) This person is going through a midlife crisis. Even if I could afford this, I would never buy this ridiculous McMansion…
5.) This person is out of my league. I don’t want to come back.
6.) I can’t invite this person to my house because my house looks stupid by comparison.
7.) Act as if nothing has changed. As if they had the same $700,000 house they had before.

If you get invited for dinner, do you bring nothing (the person is too rich anyways), do you bring the usual stuff (average bottle of wine), do you bring the luxury goods because this is going to be an amazing dinner in an amazing place. Do you say: No Thanks, because you no longer wish to associate with this person.

Perhaps this is a hypothetical question for a certain demographic. Yet, there are some intriguing underlying issues here. How much do people judge their friends and others for the house that they purchase? Like people tend to do for other purchases and lifestyle choices(clothing, music choices, etc.), I suspect there is a lot of judging here. Notice that only 2 out of the 7 listed above are positive and 1 is neutral.

I wonder how often such an event might happen. Put another way, how often are Americans close friends with people in significantly different socioeconomic situations? McMansion owners probably tend to live near other McMansion owners but how much mixing do they do with different income/social class levels? Even if they do have friends across class levels, they might still see their neighbors or close co-workers as their primary reference group.