How Does Facebook Suggest Friends If You Have No Mutual Friends

Matthew Nesbitt
By Matthew Nesbitt. Updated: November 23, 2020
How Does Facebook Suggest Friends If You Have No Mutual Friends

Have you ever had someone say to you, “you need to meet my friend, you would get on so well!”? If this person is a close friend, you might trust they know you well enough to be correct. When Facebook does the same, how might you feel? You may be thankful for a new opportunity to connect. Equally, you could be concerned over how Facebook knows you well enough to make the suggestion in the first place.

oneHOWTO investigates how Facebook suggests friends if you have no mutual friends. In doing so, we can better know how close a friend Facebook may or may not be.

You may also be interested in: How to Use Dark Mode on Facebook
  1. Why Does Facebook Suggest Friends?
  2. How does Facebook suggest friends?
  3. What does this mean for our privacy?
  4. How to stop getting friend suggestions of people you don't know

Why Does Facebook Suggest Friends?

While it might seem an obvious question, you may not have given it much consideration. Friend suggestion boxes pop up every time you log on to the site. It is a feature which is called People you may know. These suggestions can even appear on its sister sites like Instagram, without you having officially linked the accounts.

Facebook has other features which may involve you. You will see a short pre-made video of pictures edited together celebrating a certain milestone in a friendship. If someone you didn't know well made a video of you and a friend with pictures of you together, would it not feel invasive? When you consider Facebook from certain angles, the amount of information it has about us can seem sinister.

Why then does Facebook make these friend suggestions in the first place? Despite all of CEO Mark Zuckerberg's intent to be seen as a benevolent master of ceremonies at the all-welcoming ice cream social he makes Facebook out to be, it is important to remember that Facebook is first and foremost a business.

In the third quarter of 2020 alone, Facebook made $21.5 billion in total revenue ($7.8 billion net)[1]. How they made this revenue is a complicated system of targeted ads. They use information collected on individuals through their actions on the site and any other site connected through Facebook. These ads are not connected to you manually, but are controlled by complex algorithms which constantly process data from your online activity.

If we want to know a person's character, you might look at their friends. Facebook appears to use the same rationale in finding out your personal data. By connecting you to people through the friends they suggest, they can collate information about you as a group. From there they work out the demographics into which you best fit, allowing advertisers to pay top dollar for targeting their ads directly at you.

The Social Network is a 2010 film about the inception of Facebook. It shows Zuckerberg as single-minded and tells a cynical tale of the company's origins. The true impetus behind the company is hard to determine, but it is difficult to believe a company this successful has become so through sheer altruism.

In support of the cynical view that Facebook wants to connect people to exploit and mine them for valuable data is their Free Basics program. Free Basics is a program set out by Facebook and other corporations to provide limited free internet access to less developed countries. However, the platform doesn't allow access to the whole internet, only a few select sites which include, of course, Facebook.

This creates a problem about net neutrality. The goal of net neutrality is to prevent entities such a governments or corporations to regulate internet access by discriminating against certain sites and users. By only allowing certain sites, including Facebook, it is believed Free Basics contravenes the principles of net neutrality. Furthermore, it has been accused of ‘digital colonialism’[2] by using the platform to set roots and mine other countries for their wealth. Rather than oil or minerals, this wealth comes in the form of personal user data.

If you are friends with someone only because of what you can get out of them, because they can exploit your for your perceived worth, are you really friends?

How does Facebook suggest friends?

Our friend groups have been carefully constructed over years of schooling, work situations and social interactions. These friend circles are part of an almost infinite Venn diagram where other circles overlap, opening up possibilities of new friends. These circles also contain people with whom we come in contact, but would rather we didn't.

In meatspace (i.e. offline), friends are suggested to us mainly through being in the same place at the same time and saying ‘hello’ to each other. Social etiquette in previous ages might have required an introduction from a mutual friend before being able to speak. This was usually to pander to a set of social mores which many now find restrictive. They were part of a class system which wanted to control interaction between its members to exert authority, influence and power. Perhaps our analogy of an ice cream social is less appropriate. Maybe Facebook is more like an Edwardian debutante ball.

In its help pages, Facebook explains how it claims friend suggestions in the ‘People you may know’ feature are created:

  • Having mutual friends in common
  • Being in the same group or tagged in the same photo
  • Your user networks (often workplace or place of education)
  • Contacts you have uploaded from your device (usually mobile phone)

The question first posed by this article is how does Facebook suggest friends when you have no mutual friends in common? If the answer is that it is from one of the other three methods on the above list, then you may be satisfied by the answer. If you have been suggested a friend, but they do not fall into any of these categories you might understandably still be puzzled.

You wouldn't be the only one. Many tech forums, Reddit for example, have users asking questions about how friend suggestions appear. Often it is from someone they do not wish to be in contact with. This might include business associates, landlords or even ex-partners from relationships which haven't ended well. Even if we block people, users can still see information about us on public groups, mutual friend stories and photos.

If you have ever seen a person in a public space, but have no ostensible connection to them, you may have been confused to see them appear on your suggestion page. This might imply Facebook uses your location data to suggest friends. One reason you may see such an implication is that Facebook itself claimed it uses location data to make friend suggestions. A further reason you may be confused is that Facebook refuted its own claim the same day it was reported[3].

The claim was that Facebook was only using its location services to suggest friends as a test. This was not revealed to the public until after it was discovered by a user, who alerted the news source Splinter. This suggests there are other ways of finding out friend suggestions which do not appear on Facebook's official list. Whether they are being tested or implemented is hard to tell.

One such method of friend connection is through facial recognition, a technology which is used to tag yourself and others in photos posted to the site. Particularly with crowd shots, you might be in a photo with someone you don't know at all, but Facebook knows like the back of their virtual hand. Facebook's facial recognition technology is so advanced, it has been reported it can tell who you are in a photo even if your face is obscured[4].

Your face is how people recognize you on the street. It is how friends know to say ‘hi’ to you when they see you in a cafe. It is how you know which co-worker to speak to when you see them in the employee database. It is also how you can be placed at the scene of a crime. Keeping control of how your face is recognized is important because it can prevent you from being implicated in something you didn't do, from being used for somebody else's personal gain or to simply take away your dignity.

If you think this is a little far fetched, then you might wonder why Mark Zuckerberg himself covers up his laptop camera[5]. As the sophistication of technologies increases, so to do the risks. News stories about identity theft have become more commonplace. Rather than dumpster diving for an old phone bill, hackers can access information from credit companies, online banks and social networks.

As Facebook develops, understanding privacy settings becomes more difficult. Many people share information about who they know and where they go on a daily basis. This doesn't only mean you will have more options in the ‘People you may know’ feature. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, providing this information makes you vulnerable to attack[6]. It is hard to know just how to protect yourself on Facebook as ways to disseminate information and how to hide posts connected to you are becoming more advanced.

How Does Facebook Suggest Friends If You Have No Mutual Friends - How does Facebook suggest friends?

What does this mean for our privacy?

Facebook friend suggestions are just one part of a complicated situation Facebook presents in terms of privacy. You may not know each other or have mutual friends, but you are still linked to the suggestions Facebook provides. The link is through complicated algorithms which are incredibly difficult to understand, often even for Facebook itself.

This is evident from the backtracking Facebook has done in response to criticism for selling adverts to Russian companies. These companies released fake news stories which were designed to, and many experts agree succeeded in, influencing the 2016 US presidential election[7]. At first these allegations were denied, but now Facebook is working hard to prevent such action in the future. They are doing so, in part, by releasing documents to Congress.

Facebook sells data about you to companies. What these companies do with that data is governed by the laws of individual countries. The same technology which is used to sell to you can be corrupted to exploit you. Some may see this method of selling to you and exploiting you as the same thing.

Friend suggestions are just one piece of the puzzle, but it appears as one of the most invasive. We may feel like are being looked at by strangers, a disconcerting prospect whether online or in real life. This brings up another concern about privacy.

You may be happy to trade personal information to companies to sell you to. You may even like being pigeonholed as a consumer. However, there are some people who may want to do more direct harm than sell you their new fall clothing line. While Facebook denies people looking at your profile creates friend suggestions, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that it is a possibility. If it is true and they do not, then the metrics which lead to such friend suggestions must be even more convoluted.

With the ability to post your location instantly, including providing direct clues via Facebook Live, it can be hard to keep your information private. It is certainly much harder than if you didn't have all this info plugged into Facebook or any other social networking site.

It is possible to track Facebook users through Facebook messenger, especially if your location settings are not set correctly[8]. These bring up concerns about personal safety when you are offline as well as when you're logged into the program. Now that Facebook owns other platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp, the level of interconnectivity means we are even more vulnerable when our privacy is compromised.

How to stop getting friend suggestions of people you don't know

You can have all the privacy settings as tight as Facebook will allow, but there are still ways information about your identity can inform ‘People you may know’. Even with trusted friends, it can be difficult to stop people discussing, referencing or tagging you on Facebook.

Spam bots and hackers are also fond of creating fake Facebook profiles. They create friend suggestions for anyone and everyone in an attempt to access their data. We need to be very careful with these friend suggestions in particular. When this happens, it is not Facebook suggesting friends to you. Hackers and spammers are using Facebook to try to access information about you. Often it comes in the form of fake profiles with attractive pictures to entice an acceptance request.

The best way to stop receiving friend suggestions on Facebook of people you don't know, is to not use Facebook. However, campaigns in the past to encourage people to do so have backfired. On May 31st 2010, a campaign to publicize Quit Facebook Day had only 33,000 of a 500 million person user database actually make good on their pledge[9].

The reason for this is likely because so many people enjoy using Facebook. It allows them to chat to loved ones across the globe, find news which is catered specifically to their views, laugh at viral videos and trends they would never otherwise have seen. There are productive uses of Facebook which allow communities to provide support in real life circumstances. It provides methods to stay in touch with friends and relatives as well as memorializing those no longer with us. Despite the problematic execution, it allows people of disparate backgrounds and views to open up dialogue.

Facebook, like all social networks, like all business, exists because there is a demand for it. It facilitates the desires we as human beings have, especially community. This doesn't make it an intrinsically bad enterprise. However, by supplying this demand, they are making a trade which grants them information. In the information age, this means power. If we don't want Facebook to become out-of-hand powerful, then we should give it as little information as possible.

We should ask ourselves questions about why we perform so many of the actions we do on social media. What does tagging a location say about us? That we want some sort of social credit for knowing where the cool hangout spots are? Why do we want to collect so many friends we won't have the time to speak to properly? Is it because we don't want to be alone? Why do we post what's on our mind? Is it because we want our feelings validated?

Use of social media is a right and it can be incredibly beneficial. But not understanding and acknowledging the power we give to the networks which manage them is detrimental to the societies in which we exist offline. Facebook is a powerful tool and with it comes great responsibility for the user.

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How Does Facebook Suggest Friends If You Have No Mutual Friends