A friend is a friend of a friend

A project by Birgit Glatzel

In the last couple of years acquaintances and networks have been discussed excessively. Once these local connections seemed charming and were anti-poles to the impending threats of globalisation. Birgit Glatzel looked beyond this scenario produced.

In 1998 the photographer started a foray that led her from Berlin around the globe to friends, their friends and friends of their friends.

Over the course of four years Birgit Glatzel spent a day with the friends she met and took portraits of them in their everyday surroundings. Lines of friends are formed through the specific histories that advance from person to person – from friend to friend.

Many aspects of the project echo Stanley Milgram's small world experiment. The psychologist examined the average path length for social networks in the United States. The research was groundbreaking in that it suggested that human society is a small world type network characterized by short path lengths.

Abb 1: A friend-is-a-friend tree structure. Nine lines are emerging from the center. Over 300 individuals are part of the net.

In the small world study a few hundred people tried to get a letter to a complete stranger, but were only allowed to send the letter to a personal friend whom they thought was closer to the target.

While Migram conducted his experiment with a chain letter, Birgit Glatzel traveled herself. Her journey took her all around the globe. Between 1998 and 2002 the photographer visited friends and friends-of-friends in 36 cities worldwide. Let's take a look at the data behind the project.

22/06/1998 berlin
Abb 2: A timeline of the journey. Each color represents a single city.

340 persons, from 36 cities and 19 countries are part of the net and have been preserved on film. The photographer paid similiar attention to each subject. Other aspects of the project were not equally distributed.

Abb 3: Group sizes in comparison

It is hardly surprising that most of the portraits were taken in the photographer's hometown, where the project has its origin.

Abb 4: Cities in relation to numbers of portraits taken

Most friends live in close proximity. Studies came to the conclusion that it often depends on chance who becomes our friends: the neighbour next door, the colleague across the desk and the fellow student we were sitting next to on the first day of class.

Despite her travels through numerous countries, the photographer moves in a homogeneous social and cultural context and thus encounters a phenomenon correlated to what is known today as a filter bubble. Similarities in age, ethnic origin and social class are preferred when it comes to friendship.

Abb 5: Occupational groups with more than three occurrences

The advent of social media has fundamentally changed the rules of friendship. The average number of Facebook friends among adolescents is 270. However, a representative survey commissioned by the University of Chemnitz shows that we only share personal thoughts and feelings with just under three people.

Nobody is an island. People will always live in networks. Even if we do not yet know what the friendship networks of tomorrow will look like.

In accordance with the subject, the publication of a book was made possible by a network. The crowdfunding campaign to finance the printing was successfully completed in 2013. A few copies of the limited edition might still be available direct from the artist: Ask!

Photos: Birgit Glatzel, Graphics & Data: Hennink Stöve

Birgit Glatzel is an artist, photographer and architect living in Berlin. A-friend-is-a-friend was followed by many other projects.

Hennink Stöve is a media artist and data scientist who was involved in different stages of the project. A younger version of himself occurs in line F.