A look into Facebook’s friend suggestion algorithm

According to DataReportal , Facebook had 2.912 billion active users in the month of January 2022. Yes, you read that right! BILLION! This makes Facebook the most used social media platform in the world. These numbers are just growing more on a daily basis. As you read this article, there are more new users joining Facebook. If that number was too staggering, here is another. Facebook’s monthly users are 36.8% of the world’s population. More than 1/3rd of the world is on Facebook! Going by the above numbers, there is a high chance that the person reading this article is on Facebook. You maybe a Facebook user or not, but you would have heard from people about how they found an old acquaintance on Facebook or how they were magically suggested someone they knew. Facebook users are very familiar with ‘People you may know’, going through this list we do find out that these are not random people. These are people whom we know of. These maybe in our college, office or it maybe from the area that we live in. So how does Facebook do this? How does it know your acquaintances? Is it spying on you?

This article is going to take you through how Facebook might know the people you know.

So before I go ahead and tell you how Facebook might actually be suggesting friends, it must be understood that these algorithms are highly private and it is very difficult to estimate if the algorithm works in one definite way. These algorithms are constantly modified with changes in privacy laws. Ultimately, Facebook (now Meta) is one of the biggest companies in the world and like any other business, it will try to maximize the benefits it can from a given set of laws and regulations.

Many researchers have put in efforts to understand Facebook’s friend suggestion algorithm. We will use the information given by these researchers to understand this famous algorithm.

Here are a few questions that can help us understand this algorithm.

  1. Does Facebook suggest friends on the basis of your location data?
    Facebook has been in the news on numerous occasions for privacy concerns. In fact, in 2016 Facebook admitted that location data was indeed used to suggest people as friends but immediately retracted that statement couple of days later. Fusion, conducted an investigation on the same and found a lot of evidence pointing towards Facebook actually using location data of users. Having an app track your location is intimidating, this information could fall into the wrong hands and you could be potentially tracked by dangerous people. To combat this, users have stopped providing location access to Facebook. Facebook could be potentially using location data, to suggest friends, as this is one of the most easiest and logical ways to suggest people. We would most likely know people who are closer to us, it maybe from the area we live in, it maybe from work.
  2. Does Facebook suggest friends based on who recently searched for you?
    Another logical and an easy way for Facebook to suggest people to you, is to see who is searching for you. If a user, specifically mentions your name and maybe even goes through your profile, there is a high chance that you may know this person. There are many users on Quora who have admitted to this happening to them. Well, it cannot be purely coincidental that the person whom you searched for just a while back, sends you a friend request. Most likely you just appeared in their ‘people you may know’ list. David Liben-Nowell, a computer science professor at Carleton College believed that it would be very unlikely and silly if Facebook did not use this feature to suggest friends.
  3. Does Facebook suggest friends using your contacts list?
    If we have used Facebook, we definitely would have used Messenger as well. Messenger syncs contacts from your phone. Facebook would know if someone in your contact list joined Facebook recently, and it would definitely suggest that person to you. We may have experienced this for ourselves, we might have a friend who is in our contacts list, who we may been convincing to join Facebook for a long time. Suddenly, we see this person in our ‘people you may know’ list.
  4. Does Facebook suggest friends based on other third party apps?
    Facebook says that it does not use third party apps to suggest friends. At the same time, we know Facebook owns some of the most used social media apps such as Instagram and WhatsApp. They do have access to your messages and information about the pictures you like and the pages you follow. This information can again be used to suggest friends. You may have a follower on Instagram that you have not added on Facebook, this friend could eventually appear in your friend suggestions.

So, these are some of the ways that the Facebook algorithm may be suggesting you friends. As mentioned earlier, we do not know the exact variables that the algorithm takes into consideration. Overtime, rules and regulations regarding privacy change and tech companies would have to abide by these and make necessary changes. With social media gathering more popularity by the day, data privacy concerns are growing. Companies such as Google and Facebook have been in the news recently for privacy issues. As a user, it is our right to know how information about us is being collected. To protect themselves from such privacy concerns, users have started to provide minimum access to these applications.

One thing is for sure, technology is growing tremendously every second. Social media platforms will only grow in size. Recently, Facebook released their fascinating new concept of the Metaverse. These new concepts keep customers hooked to the platforms longer!

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