Facebook connections map the world

Social analytics and visualisation are becoming every more important as consumers and organisations adopt and use social collaboration tools.

The largest social network today is Facebook, with over half a billion users.  Facebook intern Paul Butler recently took it upon himself to try to visualise the connections between their users (us in other words!):

Visualizing data is like photography. Instead of starting with a blank canvas, you manipulate the lens used to present the data from a certain angle.
When the data is the social graph of 500 million people, there are a lot of lenses through which you can view it. One that piqued my curiosity was the locality of friendship. I was interested in seeing how geography and political borders affected where people lived relative to their friends. I wanted a visualization that would show which cities had a lot of friendships between them.

Paul tried a number of techniques for mapping the data (he explains his techniques in this post), and finally got to this point:

After a few minutes of rendering, the new plot appeared, and I was a bit taken aback by what I saw. The blob had turned into a surprisingly detailed map of the world. Not only were continents visible, certain international borders were apparent as well. What really struck me, though, was knowing that the lines didn’t represent coasts or rivers or political borders, but real human relationships. Each line might represent a friendship made while travelling, a family member abroad, or an old college friend pulled away by the various forces of life.
Later I replaced the lines with great circle arcs, which are the shortest routes between two points on the Earth. Because the Earth is a sphere, these are often not straight lines on the projection.
When I shared the image with others within Facebook, it resonated with many people. It’s not just a pretty picture, it’s a reaffirmation of the impact we have in connecting people, even across oceans and borders.

And here we are:

Facebook map
Click through for larger version.

Isn’t that beautiful, and it’s so interesting how the geographical and political boundaries become clear, along with the areas where Facebook hasn’t yet reached – Russia, China, Central Africa etc.

I’d love to be able to plot this just for the Lotus community – that would be a fascinating visualisation…

Stuart McIntyre is a Senior Strategist at Fostering Community Limited. He curates a number of product-focused news sites, is a lapsed podcaster, founded the Social Connections user group and regularly speaks at conferences and events. This blog represents his own slightly-eccentric and usually-controversial opinions!