Does academic research have a place on Facebook?

According to the New York Times, academic researchers have begun using Facebook to study social interactions, especially those that take place in a college setting. In particular, one team has been focusing on a particular college’s student body (clearly not Wesleyan, since we don’t have 1700 juniors) without the knowledge of the students – though it might be considered a public space.

Each day about 1,700 juniors at an East Coast college log on to Facebook.com to accumulate “friends,” compare movie preferences, share videos and exchange cybercocktails and kisses. Unwittingly, these students have become the subjects of academic research.

To study how personal tastes, habits and values affect the formation of social relationships (and how social relationships affect tastes, habits and values), a team of researchers from Harvard and the University of California, Los Angeles, are monitoring the Facebook profiles of an entire class of students at one college, which they declined to name because it could compromise the integrity of their research.

I briefly interviewed David Stillwell, a psychology PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham – and also the creator of the Facebook application “My Personality,” which has over 1.5 million users. The application offers its users a Big 5 personality test, which is useful in all sorts of psychological research. He is working with various researchers worldwide to see how data from it can be used in an effective way to further academic knowledge.

Mad: As a psychology PhD candidate, and the creator of a facebook application with over 1.5 million users, what place do you feel academic research has in the online world of Facebook?
DS: I think Facebook is a big opportunity to study the kind of data that simply never existed before, especially for psychological and social sciences, and on a massive scale too. Not only that, but it’s cross-cultural and worldwide so since facebook is experienced the same way in every country, you can easily compare across those kinds of factors.
Mad: Have you personally used your application to assist with any academic research?
DS: I have been contacted by a professor at the Hebrew university of Jerusalem who is interested in the web of connections that people build up, and specifically whether the web is leading us to have more friends in far away locations, or whether our friends are still constrained by geography.

DS: I’m also working with Professor Egan at Leicester University who is interested in validating his “sensational interests” questionnaire through Facebook, using the ‘interests’ section of peoples’ profiles, to see whether the results match up.

Mad: Interesting.

DS: I am slightly worried about the [New York Times] article that says that some peoples’ profiles are being studied without their knowledge. It makes sense, since they did make it public, but it would be better to get permission if possible. My Personality doesn’t store profile information without consent, and it can be withdrawn at any time. However, either way, it’s a lot better if a researcher does it than an employer though!
DS: But it would still be a shame if everyone had to make their profile friends-only in order to opt-out of this kind of research.
Mad: Right. I make my profile open to all Wesleyan students, because I’m interested in Wesleyan students being able to see my profile.
DS: Yes, I think that’s the problem. Employers can’t join the Wes network, but researchers can via your college. So, in a way, you can argue that your data isn’t “public.”

The whole topic is very interesting. On the one hand, I do support the furthering of academic research, and if data about my social life as exhibited through Facebook is going to this “good cause,” I’m pretty okay with that. However, I’m not sure that I like that others might be viewing my profile on false pretenses – that they’re Wesleyan students.

Perhaps the market is open for a Facebook platform/application that allows users to opt-in to academic research – and make their profiles available to social science faculty worldwide.

Any thoughts?

26 thoughts on “Does academic research have a place on Facebook?

  1. yaygreen

    It is definitely a viable field of “research”. I spent my evening with my 6-year old cousin, watching him track Santa on the Internet. I could not even begin to explain how flabbergasted he was when I began to rant in French back at my computer program… oh man, he loved it! It was awesome. There’s a lot of shit out there, but if you do it right, there’s a lot to learn. More than I could learn in a lifetime, anyway.Hey, whoever is reading this should check out my blog @ http://webnography.blogspot.com'cause you’re obviously interested, and I’m quite interested in the opinions of others.but, y’know, whatever..jenny.

  2. yaygreen

    It is definitely a viable field of “research”. I spent my evening with my 6-year old cousin, watching him track Santa on the Internet. I could not even begin to explain how flabbergasted he was when I began to rant in French back at my computer program… oh man, he loved it! It was awesome.

    There’s a lot of shit out there, but if you do it right, there’s a lot to learn. More than I could learn in a lifetime, anyway.

    Hey, whoever is reading this should check out my blog @ http://webnography.blogspot.com

    ’cause you’re obviously interested, and I’m quite interested in the opinions of others.

    but, y’know, whatever..
    jenny.

  3. Mad Joy

    Justin: Yes, it was quite convenient, hehe :P Though I do still think it’s a pretty valid topic to talk about on a Wesleyan forum, since I’d guess most Wesleyan students use facebook… and are interested broadly in academic research :DNoa, I really like your idea for a study :P The opt-in bias is tough. I mean, currently, we get that in all sorts of research that we do – there’s always a bias between those who sign up for a study, and those who don’t. While it would be idea to not have these biases, I think it’s still more important to have these ethical considerations. I mean, the results we got from the Stanford Prison Experiment were great and fascinating and interesting. But should we do something like it again, changing some variable, having the ethical considerations we do now? I don’t think many people would say yes.To be honest, anon 12:24, I do think facebook is a really useful tool to study large numbers of people. For one thing, each Facebook profile is then a representation of how an individual would like to be portrayed to the world. Even if there’s an ironic joke profile, that can also say a lot: that one wants to give off the impression ze doesn’t take facebook seriously.So the list of who someone is “friends” with is definitely sociologically important, I’d think, though certainly not an accurate portrayal of who you’re actually friends with. It’s important in showing which people are in your social network – who you at least have social interactions with. And even if people don’t actually like “everything but country music,” it’s important that they write that on their profile; what does writing that signify, then? Why do they choose to portray that?More importantly, it provides a LOT of data. I mean, there are so many people on Facebook. Even if the quality of data is slightly less trustworthy, the raw huge sample size starts to make up for it.It’s interesting that the internet IS a public place. I wish there were better methods of security in place so that when I make my profile viewable to just Wesleyan students, it’s actually just viewable to Wesleyan students. Or when I posted on a forum, that only members of the forum could see it. While I know these are not practicable right now, and someone could easily make an account on such and such forum or on Wesleyan Facebook, I like to wish otherwise. Oh well.. :P

  4. Mad Joy

    Justin: Yes, it was quite convenient, hehe :P Though I do still think it’s a pretty valid topic to talk about on a Wesleyan forum, since I’d guess most Wesleyan students use facebook… and are interested broadly in academic research :D

    Noa, I really like your idea for a study :P The opt-in bias is tough. I mean, currently, we get that in all sorts of research that we do – there’s always a bias between those who sign up for a study, and those who don’t. While it would be idea to not have these biases, I think it’s still more important to have these ethical considerations. I mean, the results we got from the Stanford Prison Experiment were great and fascinating and interesting. But should we do something like it again, changing some variable, having the ethical considerations we do now? I don’t think many people would say yes.

    To be honest, anon 12:24, I do think facebook is a really useful tool to study large numbers of people. For one thing, each Facebook profile is then a representation of how an individual would like to be portrayed to the world. Even if there’s an ironic joke profile, that can also say a lot: that one wants to give off the impression ze doesn’t take facebook seriously.

    So the list of who someone is “friends” with is definitely sociologically important, I’d think, though certainly not an accurate portrayal of who you’re actually friends with. It’s important in showing which people are in your social network – who you at least have social interactions with. And even if people don’t actually like “everything but country music,” it’s important that they write that on their profile; what does writing that signify, then? Why do they choose to portray that?

    More importantly, it provides a LOT of data. I mean, there are so many people on Facebook. Even if the quality of data is slightly less trustworthy, the raw huge sample size starts to make up for it.

    It’s interesting that the internet IS a public place. I wish there were better methods of security in place so that when I make my profile viewable to just Wesleyan students, it’s actually just viewable to Wesleyan students. Or when I posted on a forum, that only members of the forum could see it. While I know these are not practicable right now, and someone could easily make an account on such and such forum or on Wesleyan Facebook, I like to wish otherwise. Oh well.. :P

  5. Alex

    i was doing some research for a paper about children’s use of the internet, and one of the points made about it was that the internet is a public place…but that we really don’t think of it that way at all.

  6. Alex

    i was doing some research for a paper about children’s use of the internet, and one of the points made about it was that the internet is a public place…but that we really don’t think of it that way at all.

  7. noa

    This would be an interesting study – Create an “opt-in to research” application, and then compare the profiles of those that opt-in to the profiles of those that don’t… to see actually what sort of bias opting in introduces. It’s rare that you can study those who don’t decide to participate in your study, but this is an interesting chance. Too sketchy?

  8. noa

    This would be an interesting study – Create an “opt-in to research” application, and then compare the profiles of those that opt-in to the profiles of those that don’t… to see actually what sort of bias opting in introduces. It’s rare that you can study those who don’t decide to participate in your study, but this is an interesting chance. Too sketchy?

  9. AMR

    Interesting post. If anyone likes to talk about this stuff (I should find this Jenny Ryan…), I’m writing a CSS thesis on online community and social capital, largely focusing on how people build reputations/trust in certain social networks. Anyway if you are into talking about this stuff, amrosen at wes.

  10. AMR

    Interesting post. If anyone likes to talk about this stuff (I should find this Jenny Ryan…), I’m writing a CSS thesis on online community and social capital, largely focusing on how people build reputations/trust in certain social networks.

    Anyway if you are into talking about this stuff, amrosen at wes.

  11. Justin

    Anonymous @ 5:19:

    It was a statement, not an attack. I find Mad’s post to be very well-done, as well.

  12. Anonymous

    err anyone else shocked at investigative reporting on wesleying?I’ve seen few post like this and probably even fewer of this caliber.Kudos, Mad,Kudos!

  13. Anonymous

    err anyone else shocked at investigative reporting on wesleying?
    I’ve seen few post like this and probably even fewer of this caliber.
    Kudos, Mad,
    Kudos!

  14. Anonymous

    I would imagine a lot of that data would be really true. There are so many people I’m “friends” with on facebook who I never talk to in real life, and there are so many events I say I am “attending” that I sleep through or don’t actually feel like going to. And how many people actually like “everything except country music”?

  15. Anonymous

    I would imagine a lot of that data would be really true. There are so many people I’m “friends” with on facebook who I never talk to in real life, and there are so many events I say I am “attending” that I sleep through or don’t actually feel like going to. And how many people actually like “everything except country music”?

  16. Anonymous

    the real question is whether facebook has a place in academic research. despite the fads, the answer is probably ‘very little’.also, if people put their information out, i don’t see any reason why someone shouldn’t be able to collect it. but in response to anonymous @ 11:32 AM, there is already a likely bias in the data; it reflects the type of person who leaves their profile open to the public.

  17. Anonymous

    the real question is whether facebook has a place in academic research. despite the fads, the answer is probably ‘very little’.

    also, if people put their information out, i don’t see any reason why someone shouldn’t be able to collect it. but in response to anonymous @ 11:32 AM, there is already a likely bias in the data; it reflects the type of person who leaves their profile open to the public.

  18. LauraAlyse

    Jenny Ryan is doing her MA this year about facebook/internet social networking. You should talk to her!

  19. LauraAlyse

    Jenny Ryan is doing her MA this year about facebook/internet social networking. You should talk to her!

  20. Anonymous

    Allowing students to “opt-in” for academic research would introduce a bias into the sample, thus endangering the validity of the study being conducted. (Sorry, I have my econ 300 final in two and a half hours and I’m of a one-track mind right now)

  21. Anonymous

    Allowing students to “opt-in” for academic research would introduce a bias into the sample, thus endangering the validity of the study being conducted. (Sorry, I have my econ 300 final in two and a half hours and I’m of a one-track mind right now)

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