Facebook Maps the World

by Stephen Hayes on January 18, 2011

facebook friends connections map

Facebook intern Paul Butler recently created a map that illustrates the world through a random sampling of 10 million pairs of Facebook friendship connections. (Read about his methodology here and see his high-res image here.) While the outlines of continents and countries on the map are made up solely by friendship connections, the final result amazingly models a typical world map.

The map serves as a testament to Facebook’s global reach but it can also be used to measure or analyze many things, including the technological affluence of different regions, Internet penetration, and of course, the popularity – or availability – of Facebook.

Facebook Divide – Developing but Disconnected

The digital divide is demonstrated pretty clearly. Populated urban areas, coastal areas and developed countries have more prominent Facebook usage and hence are generally more looped in – technologically speaking.  Those in the dark tend to be the rural, under-populated and/or poor areas.

nasa world map of lights

In NASA’s famous satellite image, the lights of urban centers reveal a map of the developed, electrified world.

But there are exceptions, and if we take this map and compare it to the well-known NASA satellite image of the Earth at night we can see them more clearly.  Illuminated areas are the same on both maps in most cases, signifying areas that are populous and developed: North America, Europe, India, Japan and so forth.

Yet on the NASA map, China’s heavily populated east coast is easily visible, while it remains dark on the Facebook map despite a thriving technology sector.  The same is true for Iran.

In both mainland China and Iran, Facebook is banned and in these cases the maps illustrate the effects of government censorship in limiting a citizenry’s connectivity to the outside world.

(Note that in at least one case, the lack of connections on Facebook’s map only means that the site isn’t popular there. Russia is dark on the Facebook map because another social media platform, vKontakte, is dominant in the region.)

Connections without borders

But perhaps the most amazing thing about Facebook’s map is how it measures interconnectivity independent of national borders – not between nations or governments but between people.

One can observe, for example, Florida’s position as a hub of the Caribbean diaspora and Spain’s connection to the Canary Islands.

There also appears a surprising relationship between individuals in what appears to be Eastern Europe and the Aouzou strip in northern Chad. The Aouzou strip was once contested territory between Libya and Chad, but we are unaware of any present-day European connection to the region, piquing our curiosity about the nature of this relationship.

facebook map of the middle east

An enlarged view of Africa and the Middle East shows an unexpected connection between Chad and Europe, and that ex-pats working in UAE brought Facebook with them.

The UAE is clearly identifiable as a hub for Middle Eastern Facebook users. The connections are most likely a reflection of Indian, Pakistani and other ex-pats who work there. The fact that so many have Facebook accounts may be surprising to many, and could have other implications –for example, how these workers lobby for greater labor protections.

At the Rendon Group, we find this information interesting because it measures influence cross-culturally, ignoring traditional geographic borders. Butler’s map shows that Facebook and social networks like it have the potential to be a powerful tool for understanding relationships between peoples.

Stephen Hayes is a media strategist at TRG specializing in Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.  He also enjoys maps.

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