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When you first join a social network, your initial task is to add your friends. Usually, this is done in one of two ways: Your friend sends you a link to their profile page, or you search for that page yourself. From there, the website or app may give you suggestions for other people to add, once it starts to get a picture of your pre-existing network.

Facebook is now testing the addition of a new layer of recommendations, based on things that you have in common with people you may not know. This test is currently limited to a subset of users in the United States.

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If you're in the "things in common" testing group, you may now see special tags next to the name of a user when viewing a public conversation. Examples given include having attended the same university or living in the same town. The availability of this info is based on your account privacy settings, so if you hide your hometown, then you won't get suggestions based on that piece of data.

And for now at least, the "things in common" label cannot be disabled. So if you're fine with your social circle, or if you otherwise don't care to show up on the radar of Facebook users you don't know, this new feature may make things a little more complicated.

Users who are trying to avoid stalkers or bullies may want to revisit the personal information that they've added to their Facebook profile in the past, to reduce the frequency with which strangers on Facebook are notified of your presence, current location, work history, and educational background, in the event that those strangers are also participating in the "things in common" beta.

Facebook has been facing headwinds this year in terms of user growth, attributed partly to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which raised the public's awareness of how closely their Facebook profiles were being monitored -- and perhaps exploited -- by third parties. In spite of slowing growth, the company's financials remain healthy.

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With a platform like Facebook, the "network effect" is at the center of everything: The more people who are in the network, the stronger the network gets; it increases the likelihood that someone else will join, and it increases the volume of user-generated content that fuels engagement. So anything that Facebook can do to add more users has an effect on its bottom line, because more engagement means it can charge more for advertising.

Facebook's new addition to social network management is a marked departure that will create a lot of overlap with Meetup, the latter of which has built itself on the notion of bringing people together on the basis of common interests, rather than pre-existing friendships or relationships.

At the same time, extending Facebook's functions based on the successes of its rivals is par for the course -- especially when those rivals, such as Snapchat, resist acquisition. Or, in the case of YouTube, the property would be prohibitively expensive by any measure; in that case, Facebook chooses to emulate the platform in its own style instead.

As with any social network, Facebook wants to be your destination for as many engagements as possible, and expanding your network increases their opportunities to achieve that core goal.

The takeaways

  1. Facebook is testing a new "things in common" feature for you to find friends, this time based on shared interests like where you live or what university you're affiliated with.
  2. These commonalities will show up in tags next to a person's name in a public conversation.
  3. This new feature may complicate things for people who want to keep a low profile on Facebook, or people who have already reached their Facebook friend saturation point. It currently cannot be disabled.

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Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.