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.