Facebook Draws a Map of the Connected World

If there’s one thing you get when you have close to 600 million users the way Facebook does, it’s a lot of data about how they are all connected . When you plot those inter-relationships based on location, as one of the company’s engineers found, you get a world map made up of social connections. There are gaps in the data, of course, with dark spots in China and other countries that block the social network (or have large competitors of their own, as Russia does with VKontakte), but the result is an amazing picture of a connected world. If that’s what an intern at Facebook can come up with, imagine what else would be possible with that data.

The visualization is the work of Paul Butler, who is interning with Facebook’s data infrastructure engineering team. As he described in a blog post, Butler started by taking a sample of about ten million pairs of friends from the Facebook data warehouse, then combined that with each user’s current city, added up the number of friends between each pair of cities, and merged that with the longitude and latitude of each city. And then to make the data more visible, Butler says he “defined weights for each pair of cities as a function of the Euclidean distance between them and the number of friends between them.”

I was a bit taken aback by what I saw. What started as a massive blob of data 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.

What Butler did with the data is similar to — although much more elaborate than — what a programmer outside Facebook tried to do with some of the site’s profile data, before he was threatened with a lawsuit. Pete Warden scraped information from millions of profiles, then analyzed it to see the connections between states and between countries, and drew interactive maps based on the number of those connections. But Facebook threatened him with legal action, and he was forced to delete the data, because his scraping of user profiles was against the site’s terms of service.

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