Facebook a wealth of data for researchers

An interesting article in the New York Times: On Facebook, Scholars Link Up With Data. It describes several research projects being done on the social network site.

Here are some interesting findings:

“Researchers learned that while people perceive someone who has a high number of friends as popular, attractive and self-confident, people who accumulate “too many” friends (about 800 or more) are seen as insecure.”

This is fascinating. People put real social weight on the number of Facebook friends you have, almost as if Facebook friends are a actual signifier of something. So even though we know that in many cases these aren’t “real” friends, we still perceive those people with more as somehow more popular, attractive, etc. This, to me, is just another signifier at how important social network sites have become. We are using them to gauge social capital.

‘students who reported low satisfaction with life and low self-esteem, and who used Facebook intensively, accumulated a form of social capital linked to what sociologists call “weak ties.” A weak tie is a fellow classmate or someone you meet at a party, not a friend or family member. Weak ties are significant, scholars say, because they are likely to provide people with new perspectives and opportunities that they might not get from close friends and family.’

Weak ties is an interesting theory because it explains why acquaintances (not necessarily friends) are so valuable to know. They give us opportunities that lie just outside our normal daily routine. Since we talk to friends often, we know most things they know, and so after a time our combined knowledge becomes similar. But acquaintances are always introducing us to new things, as they live in quite different worlds than we do. If Facebook is really good at making weak ties, then its worth might be more than simply cultivating the friendships we already have.

An interesting article in the New York Times: On Facebook, Scholars Link Up With Data. It describes several research projects being done on the social network site.

Here are some interesting findings:

“Researchers learned that while people perceive someone who has a high number of friends as popular, attractive and self-confident, people who accumulate “too many” friends (about 800 or more) are seen as insecure.”

This is fascinating. People put real social weight on the number of Facebook friends you have, almost as if Facebook friends are a actual signifier of something. So even though we know that in many cases these aren’t “real” friends, we still perceive those people with more as somehow more popular, attractive, etc. This, to me, is just another signifier at how important social network sites have become. We are using them to gauge social capital.

‘students who reported low satisfaction with life and low self-esteem, and who used Facebook intensively, accumulated a form of social capital linked to what sociologists call “weak ties.” A weak tie is a fellow classmate or someone you meet at a party, not a friend or family member. Weak ties are significant, scholars say, because they are likely to provide people with new perspectives and opportunities that they might not get from close friends and family.’

Weak ties is an interesting theory because it explains why acquaintances (not necessarily friends) are so valuable to know. They give us opportunities that lie just outside our normal daily routine. Since we talk to friends often, we know most things they know, and so after a time our combined knowledge becomes similar. But acquaintances are always introducing us to new things, as they live in quite different worlds than we do. If Facebook is really good at making weak ties, then its worth might be more than simply cultivating the friendships we already have.

“Hispanic students were significantly less likely to use Facebook, and much more likely to use MySpace. White, Asian and Asian-American students, the study found, were much more likely to use Facebook and significantly less likely to use MySpace.”

This is an interesting finding that echoes earlier observations by Danah Boyd.

and the money quote:

“You’re not really dating until you put it on Facebook”

This suggests that Facebook is a public forum and what is displayed there has real consequential meaning. I’ve found in talking with folks that this level of embeddedness is often surprising…it’s hard to believe that people take what is found on the site so seriously.

But if you think about Facebook as a place, a semi-public place where people go, then it becomes easier to see how things said there have real influence. It used to be that you weren’t going out until both of you said so, and it probably still is. This is just a new way of saying so.

In general, I’m really excited that researchers are going to Facebook (and hopefully other social network sites) and doing research. As the article notes, there is a tremendous amount of data there to be discovered. But there is also a danger here, that research looks at these sites as representing the larger part of each person’s life.

I know from my own experience that I belong to many, many sites and on each site I have a different profile and different (although overlapping) set of friends. Each profile is a unique view into my life, and as such is a valid view, but is only a small part of my entire identity. I know that its easy to look at a Facebook profile and assume that this is what the person is all about, but on the whole I think we’re so good at projecting a certain face to the public that we don’t even realize how much we leave out.

Published: December 17th, 2007

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