To win friends online join many groups

Rice University findings may help bring communities together

Looking to make friends online?

According to data scientists from Rice University, your chances of forming online friendships depend not on which groups you join, but how many.

“If a person is looking for friends, they should basically be active in as many communities as possible,” says Anshumali Shrivastava, assistant professor of computer science at Rice and co-author of a peer-reviewed study presented in August at the 2018 IEEE/ACM International Conference on Advances in Social Networks Analysis and mining in Barcelona, Spain. “And if they want to become friends with a specific person, they should try to be a part of all the groups that person is part of,” he said.

An article on the findings of Shrivastava and co-author Chen Luo was reported in a late September edition of EurekAlert, the online journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They based their conclusions on an analysis of six online social networks with millions of members.

The idea that people who are more similar are more likely to become friends is embodied in a principal called homophily, which is a widely studied concept in friendship formation, explained Shrivastava. Communities within a network can be very large, like everyone who identifies with a particular country or state, and they can be very small, like a handful of old friends who meet once a year, he said.

Shrivastava and Luo, a graduate student in his research group, developed a model for friendship formation based on mathematical formulas that offers a simple explanation of how friendships are formed.

“Communities are having events and activities all the time, but some of them are a bigger draw, and the preference for attending these is higher,” Shrivastava said. “Based on this preference, individuals become active in the most preferred communities to which they belong. If two people are active in the same community at the same time, they have a constant, usually small, probability of forming a friendship. That’s it.”

These findings, he said, could be useful to anyone who wants to bring communities together and enhance the process of friendship formation.

The most effective way is to encourage people to form more subcommunities, he said.

“The more subcommunities you have, the more they overlap, and the more likely it is that individual members will have more close friendships throughout the organization. People have long thought that this would be one factor, but what we’ve shown is this is probably the only one you have to pay attention to.”