Social Networking and the Friendship Paradox

As college students and members of generation Y, we all know them: the girl that you’re Facebook friends with that somehow has over 1000 Facebook friends and easily gets 100 likes on any given picture or the guy that can’t walk 30 yards without having someone give him an enthusiastic greeting. They seem to have it all together and live a more successful life than we do. Turns out, they do.

The friendship paradox was established in the 1990s by Scott Feld of SUNY Stony Brook, which stipulates that most people have fewer friends than their friends. The majority of people have a relatively small amount of friends and a small amount of people have a large amount of friends. This means that the small group with the large amount of friends is more likely to be your friend in the first place and make more friends. Think of them as the one person that always seems to be a “mutual friend” when you add someone on Facebook. Similarly, we are more likely to follow a person on Twitter that has more followers than us. Therefore, they become more popular.

Recently, two social network scientists figured out a mathematical explanation for why our friends are better than us. Young-Ho Eom of the University of Toulouse and Hang-Hyun Jo at Aalto University in Finland examined characteristics like wealth and happiness of a social group and how they can follow the same trend as the friendship paradox.

By counting how many co-authors each network scientist had on papers they had written, they saw that, like the friendship paradox says, each scientist’s co-authors had a higher average number of co-authors than they did. Not only did these other scientists have more co-authors, they also had more citations and more publications. The pair suggests that other social networks like wealth and happiness are likely to behave in the same manner because of the generalized friendship paradox.

This can be explained by the sampling of people in the social network being examined. For example, you may feel unprepared for an economics class because everyone around you seems to be significantly more knowledge. It’s probably true simply because the class most likely attracts a larger than average sampling of people that have a certain level of knowledge on economics. This is a biased sample.

Online social networking amplifies the perception we have that our friends are better off than us. Whether they are high school friends, recent graduates, or family members, seeing their updates presents another biased sample of people that are more popular, wealthy, and happy. A recent study by Ethan Kross from the University of Michigan and Philippe Verduyn of Leuven University of Belgium has shown that a person tends to be less satisfied with his or her life with an increased use of Facebook. The generalized friendship paradox may be to blame.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr via Visma Finland. 

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Christie Merino