Facebook’s Secret To Building Friendships: Many Small Interactions

The design minds behind Facebook share the social network’s most important view–that friendships aren’t made in a moment but built one tiny interaction at a time.

Facebook’s Secret To Building Friendships: Many Small Interactions

In your life, you have at least one relative stranger whom you’ve grown close to. Maybe it’s a doorman. Maybe it’s the cashier at the local bodega. Maybe it’s the guy who works in the next cubicle over. So what if you only know their first name, and you’ve never had a conversation that exceeded 45 seconds? Over months of opened doors, midnight candy bars, and borrowed staplers, you’ve become quite familiar. You have a bond, a friendship, that can only be built over countless moments of tiny social friction.


So why would things work any differently online?

That’s the view of Facebook, and it’s why, despite the fact that you haven’t seen half your friends since high school, you may actually feel closer to a few of them than ever before. We talked to Mark D’Arcy, director of global creative solutions (which handles Facebook’s advertising), and Paul Adams, former head of Facebook’s branding about how the social network leverages social design to spur friendships.

The Basics Of Social Behavior

The first thing Paul Adams tells me is that “social design” is the most important perspective shift that user-experience designers need to consider today. The second thing he tells me is that “social design” is a term that should go away. Why? Because as the Internet becomes the omnipresent experience behind not just Facebook but every app and service in the world, every platform will need to be designed with social in mind.

“UX designers are really going to have to understand social behaviors, which can be complicated,” Adams says. “Anthropologists and psychologists have been studying this for hundreds of years.”


As a primer, though, Adams has developed a three-pronged understanding of how people work.

  1. Identity
    “We’re all unique. That’s the most important part of how we see the world, what we say or don’t say, and we all have this desire to be unique. That’s identity. That drives a lot of things, what we share or say.”
  2. Connectedness
    “All the people we’re connected to–that’s another huge component, and it’s a bit of a paradox. People want to feel unique, but they want to feel part of something.”
  3. How we talk
    “How do we build our relationships? How do we tell the story of our life that tells our identity? The way I’ve been talking about that is, if you look at how people interact in the real world, it’s all lightweight interactions. You say something. I say something back. It’s not a monologue, and a lot is not just speech but light gestures and body language. All those tiny, tiny things. And what’s interesting is that the aggregation of those things tells an amazing story. It takes weeks, months, and sometimes years to form these deep relationships with people.”

In other words, to create meaningful relationships online, you have to model them after meaningful relationships offline. And those are often built by just being around someone a whole lot.

Modeling Digital After Real Interactions

“One of the biggest shifts, and Paul and I talk about this a lot, is the shift from heavyweight design to lightweight design,” D’Arcy confirms. “I think it’s a good starting point to treat other people’s time as selfishly as we treat our own.”

The most prominent tool with which Facebook leverages lightweight interactions is its infamous “like” button. Liking may seem shallow to deal with negative emotions (do you “like” it when someone pays tribute to a lost parent?), and it may feel manipulative during major life events (you have to like your friend’s new baby!), but it is a gesture that people can see again and again, that takes almost no time to give or receive, and that allows you to digitally brush up against someone else.


You can also see Facebook’s lightweight design at play in its advertising. D’Arcy references the old way businesses promoted major campaigns online–you remember, the model that was huge a few years back, when some soda company would ask you to shoot a video, edit it, upload it, and prove to the world that you were the biggest fan. Then they’d fly you to LA to meet some director who’d recut the film alongside other big fans, just so you could all be the biggest fans, officially.

“Anyone who’s worked for the last decade is hugely guilty of this,” D’Arcy says. “You built incredibly complicated immersive experiences. And when you look at the numbers behind these things, they didn’t engage a lot of people. Everything we’re doing is competing with everything ever made, and people are amazing optimizers of their time.”

Compare that old video example to what Facebook did with Frito-Lay last year. Do you remember the Lay’s call for a new chip flavor, and the eventual battle among Sriracha, Chicken and Waffles, and Cheesy Garlic Bread? That entire marketing ploy was conceived with Frito-Lay in a think tank at Facebook to leverage social design. The Lay’s secret wasn’t just that the campaign was a fantastically fun idea that anyone could relate to (who wouldn’t love the chance to design their own potato chip?), but that everything, from suggesting a flavor to voting to discussing a choice, was built on lightweight communications that reinforced those three pillars of what makes people tick.

“People made up jokey flavors–sharing their identity–or people were connected, saying ‘I can’t believe you’d eat that!” Adams explains. “At the end of the day, this is a bag of potato chips. But the way people bantered was really natural. It may seem very superficial, but I don’t think it was.”

I don’t think it was, either. And good social design has another amazing benefit–because its foundation is real-world interactions; it transitions from digital to analog with ease. Shortly after speaking to Adams, I attended a first birthday party in my family. While we were all watching the adorable girl taking some of her earliest steps across the living room, we were also passing around a few bags of Lay’s, making faces as we tried them and debating the merits of maple flavoring on a fried potato. It was a really wonderful day.

[Images: Abraco Coffee, John Weiss via Flickr, Owners, Angelica via Flickr, Lays, Scott Miles Love via Flickr]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach