Using Facebook Connections To Map the World

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Facebook is just about omnipresent, at least in terms of Internet talk. The social media service is just about as ubiquitous as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, if not more so. According to Facebook's stats page, there are over 500 million active users; and while that sounds like a lot, it's hard to visualize that many people using an Internet service.

That, however, has been partially addressed by Facebook data structuring intern Paul Butler, and his world map that was created entirely by mapping 10 million Facebook connections. The result can be seen in the lead image, and there's much bigger image available here (almost 4 megabytes). Keep in mind, Butler's technique used on 10 million members, so there's at least an additional 490 million not featured.

While there are some regions that don't show up as well as others -- Russia, China -- if Facebook is the social media site of choice in your country, it was well defined by Butler's technique, which explains in his post:

I began by taking a sample of about ten million pairs of friends from Apache Hive, our data warehouse. I combined that data with each user's current city and summed the number of friends between each pair of cities. Then I merged the data with the longitude and latitude of each city.

At that point, I began exploring it in R, an open-source statistics environment. As a sanity check, I plotted points at some of the latitude and longitude coordinates. To my relief, what I saw was roughly an outline of the world. Next I erased the dots and plotted lines between the points. After a few minutes of rendering, a big white blob appeared in the center of the map... but I quickly realized that my graphing environment couldn't handle enough shades of color for it to work the way I wanted...

Butler continues, describing how the map began to flesh out as he refined the colors he was using, and the processes involved as the map began to take shape. While the technique is interesting, it's not the most newsworthy aspect of Butler's map. Instead, it does a fantastic job of showing just how much of the globe Facebook commands, even if only 10 million users are included in the process. A map like Butler's also provides insight as to why Facebook is an important aspect of any web presence worth its salt. Much like fishing, if you want to engage users, you have to go where the targets are.

In this case, after considering Butler's map, it's clear many of these potential targets reside in Mark Zuckerberg's digital world, and that world has an incredible reach in the physical version.