Visualizing Friendships -- the World According to Facebook

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It’s the visualization of a social phenomenon.

Enterprising Facebook intern Paul Butler pondered how to best represent the connections of 500 million Facebook users. His answer is this stunning image of our virtual world.

Butler took a sample of ten million pairs of friends from Facebook’s “Apache Hive” database and matched them with the corresponding coordinates of each city, connecting them with blue lines.

“Visualizing data is like photography. Instead of starting with a blank canvas, you manipulate the lens used to present the data from a certain angle,” Butler said in an online note late Tuesday night. “One [lens] that piqued my curiosity was the locality of friendship. I was interested in seeing how geography and political borders affected where people lived relative to their friends.

The process was fairly simple. Each pair of cities was given a corresponding “weight” according to the distance and number of friends between them – the brighter the line, the more friends between those cities.

As the data points began to plot, a "surprisingly detailed" image soon emerged.

“What really struck me, though, was knowing that the lines didn’t represent coasts or rivers or political borders, but real human relationships,” Butler said. “Each line might represent a friendship made while travelling, a family member abroad, or an old college friend pulled away by the various forces of life.”

The map is also a testament to the reach of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s social network, with the U.S. and Western Europe glowing especially bright. But areas as far flung as Argentina, Southeast Asia and South Africa have significant Facebook exposure.

Butler agreed. “It’s not just a pretty picture, it’s a reaffirmation of the impact we have in connecting people, even across oceans and borders.”

The picture also reveals telling dead zones in Facebook’s dominance. Russia and China for instance could easily be mistaken for bodies of water; China's isolationist policies clearly have impacted Facebook's penetration there.

But with most of the surface of the world conquered, we have to ask: What's next for Zuckerberg? Facebook: Undersea Edition?