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Folks Flock to Facebook for Kindred Spirits

By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Dec. 19 (HealthDay News) -- New research suggests that Facebook, the online social networking web site, shows that people tend to connect with those who are the most like them.

"The more tastes that you and I share in common, the more likely we are to become friends," said study author Kevin Lewis, a graduate student in sociology at Harvard University.

The findings seem to contradict the conventional wisdom that people are easily influenced by those around them. Instead, "we're seeking out people we already resemble rather than learning new perspectives and liking new things," Lewis said.

For its hundreds of millions of users, Facebook provides a modern twist on friendship and gives researchers a new window on human behavior.

The goal of the study was to understand how people choose friendships, Lewis said. The researchers started with 1,640 students at an unnamed U.S. college in 2006 and tracked their Facebook friendships and tastes -- in popular music, movies and books -- until they were seniors in 2009.

Not surprisingly, people were more likely to be friends if they shared things in common, such as their dorm, their racial background and economic status, their gender and the regions they came from. The researchers dug deeper, trying to understand the roles that people's tastes play in how friendships develop.

The study found that "students who share some tastes in movies and music are more likely to become friends," Lewis said. Shared tastes in books were less influential.

The design of the study didn't allow the researchers to describe in simple statistical terms how much more likely people with common interests were to become friends.

There wasn't much evidence that friends influenced each other's tastes except for the areas of jazz and classical music.

Why might these findings matter? "If you are a marketer, you're going to be concerned about how much of your strategy depends on the type of targeted advertising that expects trendsetters to influence their friends," Lewis said.

Gueorgi Kossinets, a researcher at Google Inc. who's familiar with the findings, described its value this way: "It is important to know if and how social and group behavior changes as our interactions become progressively more mediated by computers, and the whole new generation of 'digital natives' has grown up surrounded with computers, smart phones and Web applications. It affects all of us ultimately."

So, do people simply not learn anything from one another?

That's not the case, said Noah Mark, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "The vast majority of the things we do -- drinking coffee, wearing clothes, driving a car, 'friending' a friend -- we learned to do from other people," he said. "The words we speak with, we learned from other people. We, as individuals, did not invent these words, ideas or practices."

The study is published Dec. 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

More information

For a slightly darker take on what forms the basis of friendships, check out this research from the University of Pennsylvania.

SOURCES: Kevin Lewis, graduate student, sociology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; Gueorgi Kossinets, Ph.D., researcher, Google Inc., Mountain View, Calif.; Noah Mark, Ph.D., assistant professor, sociology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Dec. 19-23, 2011, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

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