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Innovation at Facebook Comes from the Bottom Up

If you want to find out who drives innovation at a company like Facebook, it’s best not to look from the top down. Thus, while most of the press focused on 26-year-old CEO Mark Zuckerberg for being chosen as Time’s “Person of the Year,” a virtually unknown intern, Paul Butler, released his data visualization of human relationships globally based on ten million friend pair samples from the site (see image).

Butler, who hails from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and is a math/computer science student at the University of Waterloo, told TechCrunch he came up with the map by doing this:

“I defined weights for each pair of cities as a function of the Euclidean distance between them and the number of friends between them. Then I plotted lines between the pairs by weight, so that pairs of cities with the most friendships between them were drawn on top of the others. I used a color ramp from black to blue to white, with each line’s color depending on its weight. I also transformed some of the lines to wrap around the image, rather than spanning more than halfway around the world.”

Butler’s feat illustrates how innovation really works inside technology companies. It’s rarely those at the top who come up with the best new products or services, but young coders nobody has heard of who extend the existing technology in new and creative ways.

Of course, in the tech world, 2010 was in many ways the Year of Facebook, as the Palo Alto-based company came of age to compete with the giants, Google and Yahoo, as one of the top three websites on the planet.


Plus, of course, there’s The Social Network, Hollywood’s version of how the site was created, and also the study just released that named Facebook as the best place to work in the U.S.

But, in my eyes, Butler’s data map trumps all of that. It provides a snapshot of the way the Internet is currently used around the developed world, where it’s become so embedded that it is virtually impossible any longer to imagine life without it.

 

David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, KQED, Salon, Wired Digital and was the founding editor of 7x7. He co-founded the Center for Investigative Reporting and is on the editorial board of The Nation magazine.