Facebook Data Mining: Not Just for Advertisers Anymore

The following story caught my attention in this morning's Globe (actually syndicated from the NY Times). Apparently some social scientists are taking advantage of Facebook's vast database of personal information to conduct research on human behavior. Interestingly, according to the article, users are not being asked whether they would like to participate in the research. Here's an excerpt:

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 University and the University of California, Los Angeles, is monitoring the Facebook profiles of an entire class of students at one college, which they declined to name for privacy reasons.

"One of the holy grails of social science is the degree to which taste determines friendship, or to which friendship determines taste," said Jason Kaufman, an associate professor of sociology at Harvard and a member of the research team. "Do birds of a feather flock together, or do you become more like your friends?"

A Facebook spokesperson is quoted saying that--as they've stated many times in the past--users opt in to sharing their data at their own risk.

Also noteworthy was this paragraph about social capital and 'weak ties':

An important finding, Ellison said, was that 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. "With close friends and family we've already shared information," Ellison said.

(Facebook is not involved in the academic research, but they did get into some hot water last week for their new "Beacon" service, which tracked users' purchases at third-party sites without their permission. SCI has been running several locally-based social networking sites for a year now, but does not share user information with advertisers and has no plans to do so.)


In Control

You are in control of what you choose to post on Facebook. It's almost a given that everyone knows. You can also delete whatever you don't want people to see. Sure, you have to be logged on to see other's information, but you still put yourself out there. I think the slip is when people are so engrossed with posted and communicating, they forget that the rest of the World Wide Web is watching. -------- OliviaB.