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The magic formula: How does Facebook calculate who our top friends are?
You probably know it too, that brief moment of confusion when your former classmate from the tenth grade or the long-forgotten ex-colleague shows up in the friend box on your Facebook profile and you wonder how the hell they got there.
With its algorithms, Facebook tries to calculate exactly who your best friends are. Nowhere is this clearer than in the friend box: These top 9 of your best friends identified by Facebook are displayed in the top left of every profile and are always recalculated by the social network.
My friend hardly uses Facebook and, with the exception of a few events where we both clicked Participate, we've never interacted with each other — no shared photos, no dialog in the comment field, no likes, no tags, no relationship status, nothing. However, I asked him to open his profile (for research purposes) and see who is in the friends box on the left. And there I was, right in the first place.
His answer: “That's because you stalk me all the time! Stop stalking me! "
But is that really the reason? The algorithm with which Facebook analyzes our friendships and puts them in order is of course part of the trade secret of the social network, but nevertheless some clues can be found as to how it works and what data it is based on.
The top 9 box isn't the only place where Facebook tries to sort out our friendship relationships for us. Even if you click on "Friends" in your profile, the order of your connections in the network is automatically sorted: The people you interact with the most are higher up - without the exact criteria for this rating being visible.
Another sorting takes place in the chat list on the right edge of the screen of your profile, because here, too, it is not the people who have been online the longest that are visible, but those who Facebook is most likely to think you want to talk to. And if you type a letter into the search field, some profiles will be suggested to you via auto-completion that might be of interest to you - they do not follow an alphabetical order.
Who "stalk" whom is one of the most intimate and sensitive data that Facebook has.
A cursory Google search on the subject unearthed tons of desperate questions that were asked on forums like Quora or Reddit. It's always about the rules and criteria according to which Facebook determines our friends list.
The questioners always worry that the ranking could reveal secret stalking. Does your own top friends list reveal the profile that you keep secretly calling up? Could a secret crush get wind of the stalking activities, or could it be an indication of cheating in a relationship if someone stranger from Facebook is always shown at the top of the partner's profile.
“The girl I'm talking to keeps asking me about the girls who appear in my top 9. I can only tell her again and again that I have very seldom contact with them and that I don't know why they are there, "writes a nervous Redditor, for example.
“My ex is in second place, even though we haven't spoken to each other since December and I haven't been on her profile since then. I chat with a lot of people, so why is it still there? "Asks another user.
There are no final answers to any of these questions, because details about the Facebook algorithms are not known. However, there are a few things we do know about the factors that help keep our friends list in order. And if we add up the clues, we can also gain further insights into Facebook's sorting of our social life.
As you have probably already noticed, Facebook recently introduced the ability to organize your friends into lists. Some of these lists are automatically generated based on where you work or where you live. The "Close Friends" list can be filled by any user, but Facebook also gives you suggestions as to who might be qualified for it. It's kind of a strange feeling when a faceless system tries to tell you who the most important people in your life are .
However, the greatest paranoia still triggers the mysterious top 9 friend box that appears prominently on every profile.
"Guys, please help me," posted a forum user. "Does my top 9 friend box look the same for my friends as it does for me? And are the people I see in the boxes of my Facebook friends who People they interact with both privately and publicly? For the past few weeks I've seen this one girl in my boyfriend's top 9. They're actually nothing, but she got into him - that's why I do worry about."
On request, Facebook explained to me that the top 9 would be a group of relevant friends that the user could access quickly and conveniently.
In other words: Your top 9 are the people that the algorithm suggests to you and subliminally tries to get you to interact with them. And when someone else clicks on your profile, they'll see a selection of people he or she might want to get in touch with based on mutual friends or interests. And that also makes sense: Since Facebook's business model is based on advertising, it is very important to the company that we connect and interact with as many people as possible (and with 1.5 billion users, this concept seems full to open).
The friends list algorithms calculate how much, how often and how quickly you interact with certain people. So it may well be that behind the former classmate from the tenth grade is simply the system that wants to gently ask you to stay in contact with a user who has been on your friends list for a long time. You can just as easily be shown people with whom you recently became friends on Facebook in order to start a conversation - even if there was no interaction before. According to the company, the algorithm also attaches great importance to users who have recently posted status updates or photos.
However, Facebook also told me that it was sometimes just a coincidence.
In addition, the Facebook algorithms are constantly evolving - that is the company's secret recipe and the ingredients are constantly being tinkered with in order to retain users and promote new features. Until a few years ago, Facebook used a friend algorithm called Edgerank. Three factors were taken into account in order to determine the social closeness, connectedness, status and decay: The frequency, type and timeliness of the interactions.
The current formula is more complex. It uses machine learning and takes thousands of data points into account to determine how close people are to each other. But if we assume that the basics have remained unchanged, then the equation will probably weight different types of interaction differently: being tagged together in a photo or attending the same event are better indicators of a close relationship than a like under a shared news story or a comment on the pin board.
You can get some insight into the algorithm by scrolling through your activity log. Facebook remembers everything you do on the site, and if you look through this information, you will see all the little interactions that you may have already forgotten and can draw conclusions about connections between your activity and the classification of your friends by the Recognize algorithm. Those "randomly selected" people that appear on your profile page or chat list may then make a little more sense.
I use Facebook quite sparingly, so it was enough for me if a single comment or tag connected me with someone, or that I just accepted a friend request to catapult someone into the top 10 or 20. I was embarrassed to find that I was sharing more data connections with people I had initially suspected of Facebook stalking — a casual comment here or a membership in a group there eventually led to a higher ranking.
Facebook has always claimed that it would base its friend ranking algorithms only on public interactions, i.e. not take into account private chats and profile views. "Friends who appear on the profile in the friends overview are not selected on the basis of private information such as viewing the profile. Instead, we use various public signals, e.g. whether the person has recently liked or commented on one of your posts, in order to select the friends that we show at this point, "a Facebook spokeswoman told me.
“We use different rankings for different units (the friends overview on the profile page, the chat list, etc.). For each of these units we develop an individually optimized ranking, but as with the friends overview, we do not use any private information (such as profile views) that the viewer could not find out in any other way. "
But for a lot of people, such statements don't seem very credible. Of course, Facebook says so. Who “stalks” whom is one of the most private and sensitive types of information Facebook possesses — revealing it, even indirectly, could be devastating for both the site and many users. It may sound trivial. But it's not. Personal relationships are Facebook's currency, and our lack of knowledge of how the site is watching us and whether we can trust it fuels people's fears and insecurities.
To get to the bottom of the stalker question, I created a fake Facebook account and only made friends with myself (with my real account). Then I stalked myself like crazy for a few days. My wrong account never appeared on my list of top friends. If that ever happens, I'll update this article.
I did a few more (highly unscientific) experiments. I compared my friends list to my activity log to see what interactions I had with the chosen nine and how the order changed each day. The results were logically pretty understandable. When I tagged people in photos, or they tagged me, they moved up the list. After a few days of no interaction, they then fell a few places.
But some things also surprise me. I found that people I prefer to stalk were listed in certain places — not in my nine friends list on my profile page, but in Facebook's suggestions for people to add to my "Close Friends" list. The names of those I designed also appeared in the list of suggestions that appeared when I typed a letter into the search bar (of course, people you have already searched for appear first and also people with whom you are not friends whose photos and profiles you've looked at - after all, Facebook wants you to find these people and connect with them).
I also tested a tool that uses the Facebook API to reveal friend rankings. It was a real mystery to me how some of the names on the list that I saw had ended up there in the first place. But the people I stalked were definitely higher up in this ranking. Even if we had a few interests or groups in common, it was more than obvious that the people I was looking for and whose profiles and photos I had looked at shot up the list hidden in the source code.
The lower the number, the greater the social closeness. Facebook has not disclosed the data on which this calculation is based, but in my personal experience profile views, private chats, mutual friends and other interactions come into play.
The good news is that users now have a little more control over which friends appear on their page, and they can give Facebook feedback on them. Organizing friends lists with titles like "Close Friends," "Family," and so on, is a feature that is designed to give you more control over whose posts appear in your news feed. On the other hand, if you classify someone as an "acquaintance" then it becomes less likely to see them listed anywhere.
If you want to be absolutely on the safe side, you can set up a fake account to indulge your passion for stalking. But do not have any illusions: Facebook will also save and evaluate all of this data.
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