How Facebook Uses You as Part of a Giant Sociological Experiment

Facebook, with its 900 million users, is a social scientist's wet dream: a huge number of participants, all offering up rich streams of personal information. Obviously that hasn't escaped Facebook's attention, which is why it has its own team of social scientists analyzing all of our data—and, on occasion, experimenting with us too.

Technology Review has taken an in-depth look at the Data Science Team, which is led by Cameron Marlow. He heads up a group of 12 researchers, who apply math, programming skills, and social science to mine pretty much all of Facebook's data. Recently, however, the team has started not just analyzing data, but running experiments on the site. Technology Review explains:

"Recently the Data Science Team has begun to use its unique position to experiment with the way Facebook works, tweaking the site-the way scientists might prod an ant's nest-to see how users react... So [Eytan Bakshy] messed with how Facebook operated for a quarter of a billion users. Over a seven-week period, the 76 million links that those users shared with each other were logged. Then, on 219 million randomly chosen occasions, Facebook prevented someone from seeing a link shared by a friend. Hiding links this way created a control group so that Bakshy could assess how often people end up promoting the same links because they have similar information sources and interests.

"He found that our close friends strongly sway which information we share, but overall their impact is dwarfed by the collective influence of numerous more distant contacts-what sociologists call "weak ties." It is our diverse collection of weak ties that most powerfully determines what information we're exposed to."

But if that sounds a little creepy, it shouldn't. Well, not too creepy, because these kinds of experiments aren't designed to influence us, but rather understand us. The piece continues:

"Marlow says his team wants to divine the rules of online social life to understand what's going on inside Facebook, not to develop ways to manipulate it. "Our goal is not to change the pattern of communication in society," he says. "Our goal is to understand it so we can adapt our platform to give people the experience that they want." But some of his team's work and the attitudes of Facebook's leaders show that the company is not above using its platform to tweak users' behavior. Unlike academic social scientists, Facebook's employees have a short path from an idea to an experiment on hundreds of millions of people."

No doubt those possibilities make Facebook an attractive proposition for many upcoming social scientists—which is perhaps why Marlow's team is expected to double in size over the next few months. That will mean more experiments, more insight and, hopefully, a better understanding of how we all interact. Which is a good thing! I just hope you don't mind being a participant—because you don't have much choice. [Technology Review]

Image by Ksayer1 under Creative Commons license