Have you been trying to make more Facebook friends or increase your Instagram or Twitter following? Maybe you’re simply looking for an online pen-pal. You might have been going about it by becoming a part of pages or online groups that contain content that interests you and hoping to find like-minded people there. However, recent research has revealed a much simpler method to forging an online friendship—just be active in as many online communities as possible!
Existing models of friendship formation work on the assumption that the more similar people are, the more likely they are to become friends. This increases the odds that people in some groups will become friends with each other. Keeping this in mind, researchers in the field of friendship formation often assign each group an ‘affinity’ score. The more alike group members are, the higher their affinity and the greater their chances of forming friendships.
Many individuals in social networks belong to dozens of communities and sub-communities based on where they live and what their interests are. Overlapping connections can become dense, thus adding a new layer into the process of calculating their affinity scores that had previously gone unnoticed. Data scientists at Rice University noticed this glaring oversight in 2016, realising that none of the previous analyses accounted for this overlap in communities and subcommunities.
“Let’s say Adam, Bob and Charlie are members of the same four communities, but in addition, Adam is a member of 16 other communities,” said Anshumali Shrivastava, assistant professor of computer science at Rice University in a press release . “The existing affiliation model says the likelihood of Adam and Charlie being friends only depends on the affinity measures of the four communities they have in common. It doesn’t matter that each of them is friends with Bob or that Adam’s being pulled in 16 other directions.”
Shrivastava and one of his students co-authored a study based on an analysis of six online social networks with millions of members. They came to the conclusion that friendship formation can be explained merely by looking at the overlap between communities, rendering the need to account for affinity measures for specific communities unnecessary extra work. Shrivastava said its simplicity may come as a surprise to those who study friendship formation and the role communities play in bringing about friendships.
The scientists then proceeded to develop a model for friendship formation that offers a simple explanation of how friendships form. “Communities are having events and activities all the time, but some of these are a bigger draw, and the preference for attending these is higher,” Shrivastava said. “Based on this preference, individuals become active in the most preferred communities to which they belong. If two people are active in the same community at the same time, they have a constant, usually small, probability of forming a friendship. That’s it. This mathematically recovers our observed empirical model.”
Shrivastava claims the findings could be useful to anyone who wants to bring communities together and enhance the process of friendship formation. “It seems that the most effective way is to encourage people to form more subcommunities,” he said. “The more subcommunities you have, the more they overlap, and the more likely it is that individual members will have more close friendships throughout the organisation.”
According to him, the assumption was that this would be one factor, but their findings reveal that it’s probably the only one that really matters!