Online Ethnography

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On Facebook, Scholars Link Up With Data

These notes have been adapted from a post on The New York Times website. Find the full article here.

Keywords: taste (though not defined), new way of doing social science, privacy issues, fake, representation, identity, weak ties, friends

  • Log on to 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.
  • “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?”
  • Users rate one another as “hot or not,” play games like “Pirates vs. Ninjas” and throw virtual sheep at one another
  • “We’re on the cusp of a new way of doing social science,” said Nicholas Christakis, a Harvard sociology professor who is also part of the research. “Our predecessors could only dream of the kind of data we now have.”
  • Scholars at Carnegie Mellon used the site to look at privacy issues. Researchers at the University of Colorado analyzed how Facebook instantly disseminated details about the Virginia Tech shootings in April.
  • But it is Facebook’s role as a petri dish for the social sciences — sociology, psychology and political science — that particularly excites some scholars, because the site lets them examine how people, especially young people, are connected to one another, something few data sets offer, the scholars say.
  • Social scientists at Indiana, Northwestern, Pennsylvania State, Tufts, the University of Texas and other institutions are mining Facebook to test traditional theories in their fields about relationships, identity, self-esteem, popularity, collective action, race and political engagement.
  • Much of the research is continuing and has not been published, so findings are preliminary. In a few studies, the Facebook users do not know they are being examined. A spokeswoman for Facebook says the site has no policy prohibiting scholars from studying profiles of users who have not activated certain privacy settings.
  • S. Shyam Sundar, a professor and founder of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State, has led students in several Facebook studies exploring identity. One involved the creation of mock Facebook profiles. 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.
  • In “The Benefits of Facebook ‘Friends,’” a paper this year in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Nicole Ellison, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, and colleagues found that Facebook use could have a positive impact on students’ well-being. (Note to parents: in an earlier paper the researchers found no correlation between grade-point average and intensity of Facebook use.)
  • An important finding, Ms. 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,” Ms. Ellison said.
  • Ms. Ellison and her colleagues suggest the information gleaned from Facebook may be more accurate than personal information offered elsewhere online, such as chat room profiles, because Facebook is largely based in real-world relationships that originate in confined communities like campuses.
  • Mr. Sundar of Penn State agreed. “You cannot keep it fake for that long,” he said. “It’s not a You don’t make an impression and then hook somebody.”
  • But some scholars point out that Facebook is not representative of the ethnicity, educational background or income of the population at large, and its membership is self-selecting, so there are limits to research using the site. Eszter Hargittai, a professor at Northwestern, found in a study that 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.

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