Last November, Facebook flipped Stanley Milgram's "six degrees of separation" theory on its head and showed that we're a lot closer than you might think. Today, Facebook launched a new interactive map of the world's friendships — a partnership with the data visualization wizards at the Stamen design studio — that illustrates some of the ways we're connected. The map uses an often-amorphous blob of bubbles representing the world's countries to show which ones share the most friendships, and many times, even explain why.
"There's a lot of buried treasure here"
"One of the most interesting / unexpected finds was seeing how closely tied Brazil is to Japan," Facebook's project lead Mandy Zibart says. "Brazilians are the third largest immigrant group to Japan... There's a lot of buried treasure inside here." When you click one of the multi-colored circles representing countries, related countries burst to life and enlarge based on how many friendships the two countries share. In many cases the results seem strange, so Facebook worked in coordination with an international relations researcher to develop "Closer Looks" for many of these relationships — hypotheses about why Nepal might have a very high number of friendships with Australia, for instance. In that case, Facebook says, the number of friendships could be due to the tens of thousands of student visas Australia has issued to Nepalese students within the last few years.
Facebook offers a source linked below each hypothesis that substantiates the company's claim. The default view for examining friendships is "by continent," but you can also click "by language" to view the world color-coded by the primary language each country speaks. It's easy to explore French colonization in this view, since you can see at a glance which countries speak primarily French.
"Mapping the World's Friendships" is the latest edition of Facebook Stories, a campaign meant to highlight the unique ways people use the social network. Last month's highlighted Story was Mayank Sharma, an Indian man who used Facebook to re-introduce himself to all of his friends after losing his memory in a battle with tubercular meningitis. The map was built by Stamen, the design studio behind some of the slickest interactive maps and graphics we've seen, including the hurricane tracker the Weather Channel used during Hurricane Isaac. Stamen's map data is also behind the gorgeous watercolor view in Satellite Eyes, a new app for Mac that changes your desktop wallpaper to a satellite image of wherever you are.
"The original concept was a more standard understanding of a world map," Zibart says, "but [Stamen] turned the data we already had into a really interesting visualization." The team took inspiration from design sites like Visual.ly, but Stamen took the project in a wholly interactive direction. One issue the small team of three at Facebook faced was normalizing results among countries and displaying results relative to the size of each country. "Now, you can parse a lot of data that's in front of you really easily," Zibart says. "It's like Freakonomics," says Facebook's Slater Tow. "This thing could spin off a book. There's a lot left to be discovered."