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Wolfram Alpha's Facebook data project reveals key social media trends

Wolfram Alpha has released some new statistics gleaned from its Personal Analytics for Facebook project, including the number of friends a typical Facebook user has, how friend numbers vary with user age, and more.

The computational knowledge engine developer introduced its Facebook research project last August and introduced some cool new friend network-mapping tools to the Personal Analytics for Facebook tracker in January.

The current update to goings-on within the project focuses on how people build their friend networks at different ages and how Facebook's main relationship status options — single, in a relationship, engaged, and married — are represented across age groups on Facebook.

Other relationship statuses, presumably including the famous "it's complicated," are also examined but not as closely, while the study lumps statuses like "civil union," "separated," and "widowed" into a catch-all status it calls "married+".

The January update also marked the launch of Wolfram Alpha's Personal Analytics for Facebook Data Donor programme, which lets people contribute detailed data for research purposes.

"A few weeks ago we decided to start analysing all this data. And I have to say that if nothing else it's been a terrific example of the power of Mathematica and the Wolfram Language for doing data science," Wolfram Alpha founder Stephen Wolfram said in a blog post announcing the latest findings.

Among the things emerging from the data is the unsurprising fact that many Facebook users tend to have the most friends who are right around their own age, particularly the younger the user is. But that tendency starts to erode as people get older — Facebook users aged 55 and older have a broad range of friends across all age groups, according to the project data.

"The first thing we see is that the ages of friends always peak at or near the age of the person themselves — which is presumably a reflection of the fact that in today's society many friends are made in age-based classes in school or college. For younger people, the peak around the person's age tends to be pretty sharp. For older people, the distribution gets progressively broader," Wolfram said.

One thing the study found is that there was often "obvious goofiness" going on with the youngest Facebook users — for example, many young male Facebookers reporting themselves as "married." Such anomalies may be largely attributable to untrue personal details listed by illicit users younger than 13, the age Facebook requires to use the site.

Another thing to remember about the latest Personal Analytics for Facebook data is that the volunteers contributing to Data Donor project don't perfectly reflect the larger Facebook user base. For example, Wolfram found that in the "broader Facebook population, there are significantly more people who have almost no Facebook friends" than in the Data Donor subset.