Saturday, February 28, 2009

Statistical Anthropology: Primates And Facebook

I got so annoyed at the recent decline in quality on Hacker News that I deleted my account. Then I read something interesting, wrote a gigantic comment about it, and discovered I couldn't log in. Whoops.

Here's the link.

Here's the comment:

I think the flaws in the methodology here are pretty interesting. I have 187 friends on Facebook; a ton of these are complete strangers who know of me from the Ruby community, or people who I met once or twice through that community. The final paragraph in the post says that these are all people I monitor passively; this is correct, but somewhat misleading. These are all people who brought themselves to my attention.

It's not a very interesting distinction in my case, but look at @THE_REAL_SHAQ on Twitter. Compare the number of people on Twitter who passively monitor Shaquille O'Neal to the numer of people Shaquille O'Neal passively monitors. It's 405 (monitored) to 193,250 (monitoring). I have a similar but much less dramatic imbalance: following 189, followed by 1,058.

btw, I know for a fact that the 189 I'm following on Twitter are different from the 187 I'm "friends" with on Facebook. A few people I'm friends with on Facebook are people who know me from high school, or claim to, yet I have absolutely no idea who they are. I'm not following them on Twitter. so I know those numbers represent different groups of people, but how different, that I don't know.

anyway, this follower/following imbalance on Twitter is much more real than what you would see on Facebook. if Shaq is there, he's probably got 193,250 "friends", most of whom he will never met or even hear of. You see this all the time on Myspace.

this research is definitely interesting, but the methodology is too naive to draw many conclusions from just yet. given the huge volume of data available on the Web, though, stats-oriented anthropology is likely to become a huge field. definitely looking forward to more of this research.

by the way, I kind of sound like an arrogant douche in this. sorry. I always act like a dick when I post on Hacker News, because it annoys me so much. that's part of why I deleted the account in the first place.


  1. How did you delete your account? I couldn't find a way.

  2. He didn't, it's still at with all his submissions and comments. There's no way to delete yourself.

  3. Giles, sounds like the same issue that developed on LiveJournal back around 2000, popular journals with lots of people listed as "friend of" with very few "friends."

  4. Doh, that's right, I didn't delete the account because the app won't let me. I just deleted the password instead so I can't log in. Close enough.

  5. @Anonymous #3 - its not really an issue, per se, it's inherent to how people communicate. The only issue really is conflating the fame-ish elements of social software behavior with the community-ish elements of social software behavior. Facebook and Myspace use the term "friend", but academics should hold higher standards. You can't just map Facebook "friends" to real-life friends and expect every element of analogy to hold true.


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