Thursday, April 30, 2020

Exploring the Effects of Link Recommendations on Social Networks

Most people today are actively engaged on at least one social networking site, enabling individuals to keep in touch with old friends, connect with new people, and rapidly disseminate information to all. The method by which users find and link up with others online is often assisted by recommendation systems. A common technique utilized by online social networking sites (e.g., LinkedIn, Facebook) is to make link recommendations based upon friends of friends, or shared mutual connections. This method exploits a user’s social network structure, and specifically transitivity, to predict that a user will be interested in connecting with an individual who is also connected with that user’s friends, (i.e., “I am more likely to like someone who several of my friends like, than someone chosen at random”).

Despite the wide use of recommendation algorithms, little is known about the way in which recommendation systems impact the structure of online social networks. To address this problem at the upcoming (now virtual) 2020 Spring Simulation Conference we have a paper entitled "Exploring the Effects of Link Recommendations on Social Networks: An Agent-Based Modeling Approach."

This paper contributes to this limited area of (publicly available) research by demonstrating how a stylized agent-based model can be used to explore societal, network-level effects of commonly used online link recommendations from the bottom up. Below we provide the abstract to the paper, the steps the model takes to generate the online social network, the types of metrics outputted by the model and a selection of some of the results. While at the bottom of the post we provide the full reference to the paper. Further details about the model, in the Overview, Design Concepts, and Details (ODD) format along with the Python source code can be found at

The vast majority of recommender system research has focused on improving performance accuracy, while limited work has explored their societal, network level effects. This paper demonstrates how simulation can be used to investigate macro level effects of online social network link recommendations, such as whether these technologies may be fragmenting or bridging communities of individuals. An agent-based model is presented that generates stylized online social networks with different percentages of real world contacts and link recommendations. Results show that networks with higher percentages of recommendation-based links produce more clustered, distinct, and dispersed communities, suggesting that these technologies could fragment society. Furthermore, scale-free network properties diminished with higher percentages of recommendations, suggesting that these technologies could be contributing to recent findings that social networks are at most ‘weakly’ scale-free. Building upon this research, further simulation work could inform the design of link recommendation algorithms that help connect both individuals and communities.

Keywords: online social network, social network analysis, mutual connection link recommendation system, friend-of-friend recommender, agent-based modeling.
Online network generation process
Social Network Analysis definitions for metrics output by this model
The effect of link recommendations on mean clustering coefficient and modularity. Error bars represent one standard deviation.
Probability density functions showing the degree distribution of Online networks (beginning top left and increasing left to right, top to bottom) with link recommendation percentage levels: 0, 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50. The blue line represents the empirical data, and red and green dotted lines represent fit lines corresponding with the power-law and lognormal distributions, respectively.

Full Reference: 
Sibley, C. and Crooks, A.T. (2020), Exploring the Effects of Link Recommendations on Social Networks: An Agent-Based Modeling Approach, Spring Simulation Conference (SpringSim’20), Fairfax, VA. (pdf)

Update: Our paper was selected as runner-up for best paper.