The geography of online social networks

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Since most people use online social networks like Facebook to keep in touch with people who they interact with in real life, it doesn’t make sense to sign up for a Facebook account unless others in your area have already. This predicts that we should see a spreading out of Facebook from its founding location, just like a contagious disease rolling out from Typhoid Mary’s neighborhood. Let’s take a look at the data and see.

First, I found this map from Google Images of the number of Facebook visits by state:


Unfortunately, these are not per capita rates. But you can still tell that the Northeast has a whole hell of a lot of activity, while super-populated California shows little. Luckily, Facebook calculated the number of adult users in each state, and divided this by the state’s entire adult population size to get the prevalence of Facebook among adults by state. The data are here, and I’ve made a bubble map of them here. Note that the pattern is pretty similar, even though these are now per capita rates.

It looks as though Facebook is spreading from the Northeast, so one easy way to quantify the pattern is to plot the prevalence of Facebook among adults as a function of distance from the original physical site — Harvard, in this case. (I used the zip code of a state’s largest city and that of Harvard to calculate distance.) Here is the result:


Close to Harvard, prevalence is high, and it declines pretty steadily as you branch out from there. The Spearman rank correlation between Facebook prevalence and distance from Harvard is -0.58 (p less than 10^-6).

If Facebook were being used to talk anonymously to a bunch of strangers, as with the early AOL chatrooms, then the adoption of this technology wouldn’t show such a strong geographical pattern — who cares if no one else in your state uses a chatroom, as long as there are enough people in total? This shows how firmly grounded in people’s real lives their use of Facebook is; otherwise it would not spread in a more or less person-to-person fashion from its founding location.

It’s not that there aren’t still chatrooms — it’s just that, to normal people, they’re gay, at least compared to Facebook. Few would prefer joining a cyberworld for their social interaction — using the internet to slightly enhance what they’ve already got going in real life is exciting enough. The only exceptions are cases where you have no place to congregate in real life with your partners, such as a group of young guys who want to play video games. Arcades started to vanish around 1988, so that now they must plug in to the internet and play each other online. For the most part, though, the internet isn’t going to radically change how we conduct our social lives.

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21 Comments

  1. There’s something wrong with that map. Look at New Mexico. Albuquerque should show up nice and bright. There’s no concentration.

  2. if you want this to go viral you might want to remove the word “gay”

  3. I thought that too about why the dots are uniform across each state — but the data is state-level, so he didn’t have access to county or city data. I guess he thought it was cooler to have uniformly scattered dots than shading the state, or what have you. It’s confusing, though. 
     
    if you want this to go viral you might want to remove the word “gay”
     
     
    That’s how normal people refer to chatrooms, though. Just reporting.

  4. Really interesting if true. Is the data source reliable? What’s their methodology? 
     
    Also, if it’s true, what are (educated) people using for online social networking out west?

  5. if you want this to go viral you might want to remove the word “gay” 
     
    >> That’s how normal people refer to chatrooms, though. Just reporting. 
     
    But we aren’t in a chat room; you are reporting about one. Indirectly-reported speech would adhere to the style of the discourse in which the report is embedded, no? Aren’t you some kind of linguist or something?

  6. Regarding the use of the word “gay” in the post and the objection another has taken to its use– 
     
    It was a particular group of people who decided to take the standard English adjective gay and apply a new meaning to it (in the early 70s, I believe) using it as both a noun and an adjective. This new usage survived and prospered to the point that the older usage pretty much fell out of favor, even in the more formal written English in which it was often used. 
     
    Years later, starting among the fairly young and then spreading to other users, the word gained yet another meaning in adjectival form. It is this use which we see in the post.  
     
    American English is a rich language. It’s not unusual for words to lose, gain, change meanings, but it is ironic that one might object to the change of its usage in one instance but not in the other.  
     
    That’s the neat thing about American English. If enough people want to use a word a certain way, if it communicates what they wish, the word survives, but it is never assured a constant, unchanging meaning.  
     
    Ah, at least we don’t have the language police, like the French.

  7. Insisting on stylistic uniformity is gay. 
     
    Unless it’s for contrast value: 
     
    “My dear heavens, Charles — all that I asked of that ragamuffin was whether he could direct me to proper spot for patrons of the antique shop to park their automobiles. And did you hear that bilious little rapscallion’s response? Such insolence! Not even for all the gold in Cibola would I — how did he put it? — suck on his big fat hairy nutsack.”

  8. @agnostic 
    That is not how normal people refer to chatrooms. 
     
    @BL 
     
    First of all we are well beyond any hope of changing gay back to meaning happy. However we are in a time where using gay as a generic pejorative is still rare and most prevalent amongst adolescents and those who actively engage in adolescent humor. So it is not ironic at all to object to this new change but not to the initial. 
     
    Second, there is good reason to resists changing the word gay from a reference to homosexuality to a generic pejorative. It associates a minority group with generic unpleasantness and thus associates that generic unpleasantness with that minority group. It’s the same principle if I were to replace instances of the word cowardly with the-n-word. It associates in the mind of the reader/listener (and quite possibly in the mind of the speaker, but that’s a different discussion) a connection between the negative and the minority group. 
     
    English is a living language and it has many subsets but that does not mean that we cannot express opinions on it’s evolution or on what is proper in a given context. If I were to address people in my comments as “ignorant m*ther f*****s” surely you would protest my tone and attitude and rightly so. So when using the name of a minority group as an insult you should not be surprised when someone in, affiliated, or sympathetic to said minority group is offended.

  9. Johnny, quit acting so retarded.

  10. Regarding the use of the word “gay” in the post and the objection another has taken to its use– 
     
    It was a particular group of people who decided to take the standard English adjective gay and apply a new meaning to it (in the early 70s, I believe) using it as both a noun and an adjective.
     
     
    BL,  
     
    A pedantic point, perhaps, but I think gays started using the word “gay” to describe themselves in the 1920s.  
     
    During this time, “homosexual balls” in urban centers like New York and Chicago were actually fairly popular, and as a result, public homosexuality became associated with festivity in some circles. Homosexual men traveling to urban centers for business or other reasons who wanted to meet other homosexual men would ask men that they met through friends or colleagues and whom they suspected might be homosexual if there was anything gay to do in the city, with a slight emphasis on the word “gay.” Heterosexual men of course just thought they were looking for some fun, but other homoosexual men would catch the reference. 
     
    That’s pretty much the only thing I learned in four years as an English major in college, so it is with pride that I pass this knowledge on to you.

  11. to Johnny Walker, 
     
    For a long time in the 80s when young people came across the word gay in fiction or non-fiction, many assumed its traditional meaning was intended–”happy, light of spirit.” However, there developed a growing confusion over the word’s meaning when contextual clues were simply not enough to overcome ambiguity.  
     
    “What do they mean here when they say he’s ‘gay’? students often asked.  
     
    Their confusion was understandable. The word was in the process of change, of adding meaning rather than obliterating an old meaning. Adding to the confusion was that the standard meaning and the new meaning were indeed related, a fact not lost on anyone, not just the young. 
     
    “Happy,” “light of spirit,” yes. As I understand it, the gay groups that attached that word to themselves chose it to show they were happy with themselves and with their orientation. I have even read that they wished to embrace the notion of campiness although I’ve no way to know if that is accurate. However, one need only recall that many of the demonstrations of their “happiness” were/are still what can only be called “flamboyant.”  
     
    This behavior was/is viewed by many (dare I say most) as self-indulgent attention-seeking, especially when it’s exhibited by adults, and such behavior is equated with silliness. After all, we are a media-driven society, and feather boas on Elton John or feminine make-up on Boy George, or the camp of the Village People were one thing–they were, after all, performers in the way Liberace was. 
     
    However, such behavior extended to those outside the field of entertainment: things like the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade and Sado-Masochism Fairs get a great deal of attention and why not? They strive for attention. This behavior is viewed by many as, at best, silly and self-indulgent attention-seeking and, at worst, freakish.  
     
    Is it any wonder that that exhibitionism or showmanship (or whatever we want to call it) was now associated with not just a political movement, but with a style, a style that embraced uninhibited self-expression and yes, flamboyance? I guess it’s hard for regular gay people to distance themselves from this portrayal of themselves when a vocal and visible subset of gay people keep promoting this other persona.  
     
    So, as yet another meaning of the word evolved, “silly” seems a rather benevolent synonym.  
     
    That this new meaning reinforces a stereotype is nothing new to language, to human behavior, or to the relationship between the two.  
     
    Personally, I don’t like the idea that anyone, myself included, “owns” a word. True, anyone can take take a word, re-define it as he sees fit, hope it catches on, but so can everyone else. We don’t “own” words, and we certainly can’t control the connotations attached to them.

  12. @BL 
     
    Was there any point whatsoever to the rant against flamboyant behavior amongst homosexuals? It had little, if not nothing, to do with using the name of a minority group as a pejorative or the larger issue of language evolution. Your opinions on flamboyancy and belief that “they” seek attention is immaterial to the point. 
     
    Gay as a synonym for silly is widely encountered in english speaking community or pervasive in a subculture so it is not a good example. 
     
    I’m not owning a word, I’m objecting to a derogatory usage of a name for a minority group. I’m attempting to encourage a community standard, not ban the use of a word. Just as anyone can re-define a word anyone can also challenge that re-definition. 
     
    @agnostic 
    I’m curious what minority group, if any, do you belong to. I would like to know so that when commenting here I can use it as a synonym for evil, lazy, cowardly, and or stupid.

  13. “That’s pretty much all I learned in four years as an English major in college…” 
     
    Interesting, Marc. I didn’t know the word was used that early in that way, Marc. I had heard there were code words, but I didn’t know it was gay. 
     
    About the only thing I learned from English and anthro linguistics classes after four years in college is that you can’t control the meaning of words, especially those of American English. 
     
    A change in behavior of those associated with the group, however, does mold its negative or positive connotations. I was thinking, for example, of how little boys not that long ago taunted each other with “ya throw like a girrrrlllll.” 
     
    Watching kids in t-ball and even the earliest stages of more organized ball and soccer, you don’t hear that like you once did. It’s because at that age, the girls are better than the boys at several skills. It’s not unusual for a lot of the girls in second or third grade to be as fast as the fastest boys and as competitive, which is key. Given a chance to play sports, they’ve taken to coaching and to encouragement in those physical pursuits and not until later do the boys surpass them. 
     
    Yeah. We can chose a word, but we don’t really forge its meanings or connotations. Behavior does.

  14. Johnny Walker 
     
    A rant? Surely you jest. I offered a serious point about how words gain/lose/change meaning.  
     
    I looked at agnostic’s use of the word in his post and took it to mean one of the meanings the word has gained–silly/not serious–valid usage even if it offends your sensibilities.  
     
     
    Maybe it’s the part of the country I’m from. Men prance nude in the streets of a major city with feathers tied around their Johnsons and angel wings tied to their backs as they make sucking sounds at the cops and firemen who have to police the parade route. It’s hard not to see that as silly and yes, flamboyant. 
     
    I suspect the connotation of the word will change when that kind of behavior all but disappears.

  15. I’m curious what minority group, if any, do you belong to. I would like to know so that when commenting here I can use it as a synonym for evil, lazy, cowardly, and or stupid. 
     
    Well, people at or above me in smarts are on the order of 1 in 10,000, so feel free to use “gifted” as a pejorative.

  16. I would use arrogant or narcissistic but those are already pejoratives. How about “special”? That seems to fit the conversation and in line with your style of…not wit, what is the word I am looking for? Let’s just go with snark until I can find a less offensive word for your chosen style of social interaction.

  17. @BL 
     
    As I said, “Gay as a synonym for silly is not widely encountered in english speaking community or pervasive in a subculture so it is not a good example.” 
     
    As for your discussion of flamboyant behavior, it is at best an unfounded speculation on the change of the word gay and at worst an unrelated rant. 
     
    Also, 
    “This behavior was/is viewed by many (dare I say most)…” 
     
    There is no reason to generalize and make statements on behalf of others. If you have some data you would like to share then feel free but sweeping statements like have no place in a serious (which this once was) discussion.  
     
    “I looked at agnostic’s use of the word in his post and took it to mean one of the meanings the word has gained–silly/not serious–valid usage even if it offends your sensibilities. “ 
     
    If you examine youth oriented places where you are likely to encounter gay as a pejorative it is not used to mean silly it used as a synonym for lame, unfortunate, and annoying. If you would like I can e-mail you a few dozen screenshots to back this up.

  18. @agnostic 
     
    I will say this, I am surprised that someone who claimed the female villain in captain planet was feminist propoganda has trouble understanding the power of language has.

  19. @ Johnny Walker Purple 
     
    “Gay as a synonym for silly is not widely encountered…so it is not a good example.” 
     
    If you examine youth oriented places…it is not used to mean silly[.] it [is] used as a synonym for lame, unfortunate, and annoying 
     
    a. “That’s so gay”= “that’s so silly or so weak as to not be regarded seriously or accorded respect” 
     
    b. The “youth oriented” place in which I toiled for a few decades was populated by 2100 14-18 year olds. It is true the girls were more likely to mean “silly” and the boys to mean “lame.” “Annoying”? No, not last I knew, but then slang meanings vary greatly from one community to the next, one school to the next, one group w/in a school to the next, one month to the next.  
     
    As to my descriptions of the behavior exhibited in the SF Gay Pride Parade and the way that behavior is perceived “by most,” yes, most…you want data? Be real. Hell, even my gay friends call it The F—ing Freak Show. They’re embarrassed by it.  
     
    You don’t think that behavior hasn’t moved the word into another realm in usage? Then you haven’t talked much to a wide variety of people, including young people.  
     
    The gay community could invent a new word to call themselves, but it wouldn’t take long for that new word to soon develop the same connotations as long as those images are beamed into living rooms and onto computer screens.

  20. Wrong, yours is snark, which only comes from those with their panties in a twist. 
     
    That post on environmentalist propaganda directed at kids showed how *little* effect it had. As I mentioned, no little kid watching Captain Planet was brainwashed by language. We ignored it and focused on how bad we wanted to bang Gaia or Linka. 
     
    In any case, your hypothesis about how humans think, and especially how language influences thought, is totally wrong, and we’re sick of hearing it. 
     
    I’ll delete further comments from you, so that you’ll give up and do something that will ameliorate your neurosis, like masturbating or something. Get a life. 
     
    That goes for this whole line of discussion — it’s over. The word “gay” meaning lame is here to stay, so deal with it. And I’ll use it as much or as little as I please. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else — you’re not even a drop in the bucket.

  21. The Gay Science is one of the world’s greatest books fwiw.

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