Facebook as a Research Medium in Predicting Behavior

This entry is part of my research project for the class of Networked Rhetoric at Stanford University. For more information, click here.

In the small timeframe of five years, Facebook already boasts a membership of 400 million. For many people, in particular younger generations, Facebook has taken precedent over e-mail and most other communication devices with perhaps the singular exception of cell phones. In other words, as an online social network site, Facebook has established itself as part of our social lives. And, as a time goes on, Facebook will arguably be more and more a fixture in our lives as a communication device.

However, it is not just the quick back and forth dialogue that makes Facebook such a powerful and popular tool of communication. Instead, it is the unprecedented range of user specific information available on the site. On Facebook profiles display one’s name, general information, including interests, self-made “about me” blurbs, status updates, wall-to-wall friend conversations, and a potentially infinite amount of photographic documentation with attached friend comments. All things consider, this is a lot of information, much more than we as individuals have ever had condensed in one location.

In the days before Facebook a lot of our social behavior took place in face-to-face settings. Our friends updated us on their lives by retelling stories from the weekend, but the perspective we received was generally pretty limited. All this changed with Facebook. We at the click of a button have access to a constantly edited overview of our friends’ whereabouts and behavior. As social animals, those close to us easily psychologically and behaviorally influence us. But, now that social environments have created shifted towards the virtual web, are we just as easily influenced by what we see on our friends’ Facebook page?

Through my research I hope to prove the answer to be – definitely.

Studies have shown that although the average Facebook user has about 150 online Facebook friends, the number of people that can actually be considered close friends averages to be around 6.6 people. So, in other words, nothing has really changed during our behavior shift towards a virtual social environment. On the other hand, what has drastically changed is the constant and immediate range of access we now have into our friends’ lives and others have into our own.

With Facebook’s creation in 2004, most people have had their Facebook account for at least a couple years. When thinking into the future, people will probably have their Facebook from early on in their lives. This is an unprecedented opportunity for researchers amounted to multiple decades of mapped social behavior. If a method is developed using Facebook, it will be possible predict everything from behavior to spread of political ideas and diseases simply by looking at someone’s Facebook page and friends.

Research has already been done in this field leading to interesting results.

Visit: http://www.wired.co.uk/wired-magazine/archive/2009/11/features/buddy-system-the-infectious-power-of-social-networks.aspx and http://news.stanford.edu/news/2010/april/epidemic-social-network-040810.html for more information.

Cristina Zappacosta, Stanford University

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This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Student Research, Stanford Networked Rhetorics class. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Facebook as a Research Medium in Predicting Behavior

  1. ccrvisitor says:

    Cristina,
    I think that your topic has a lot of potential and I really liked the last part of your post where you described how Facebook can be used to analyze behavior and political trends. I also agree with the part where you said that on Facebook you can find more information than in any other place, and I think that you can look deeper into this “information aggregator” idea and what its implications are.
    The one thing that I don’t understand though, is what exactly are you referring to when you are talking about Facebook influencing people? Influencing what? Their Facebook behavior (have similar photos, similar preferences, similar posts etc) or influence their choices – and again, when you are talking about choices – in what aspects of life do you think Facebook can actually have an influence. Do you think that people will use Facebook to get advice from not-so-close friends on really personal issues that they would otherwise only talk about with their close friends?
    I found this article funny http://www.allfacebook.com/2009/03/facebook-friends-influence/ , maybe you can use it.
    Also, the following study, “Personality and motivations associated with Facebook use”, might be helpful:
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6VDC-4VCH3F4-1&_user=145269&_coverDate=03%2F31%2F2009&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1315670660&_rerunOrigin=scholar.google&_acct=C000012078&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=145269&md5=8a6572470c044db1786524c2a411b790

    Ioana

  2. ccrvisitor says:

    Hi Cristina,

    I loved your post. Your topic definitely has a lot of potential, although it seems like the question you posed is pretty narrow. It might work, but I’d like to know what sorts of research you plan on doing (or have already done) to show whether or not other people’s facebook profile. In any case, maybe think about expanding your topic a bit. In the last paragraph, you talked about how one day we might be able to predict people’s behaviour. Check out this article. It looks like it is already possible to predict people’s personalities based on their facebook profiles.

    http://wellness.blogs.time.com/2009/12/03/the-psychology-of-facebook-profiles/

    Hope this helps and good luck with your research!

    -David

  3. ccrvisitor says:

    Cristina,

    I really liked the article links you posted. At first, I was under the impression that the information out there was all qualitative and mostly about psychology and individual behavior. It was interesting to see public health research using social networks.

    You talk about facebook as a communication device, which I think is really interesting to think about because of what we are communicating. I wonder if we’re mostly communicating the most exciting parts of ourselves, the things we notice? And we’re communicating only our public lives (for most of us anyway), so maybe there are differences in the types of behavior that are influenced? And the use of facebook in the second article to discover community bridges is really cool, but I wonder if that means that a lot of influenced behavior linked to facebook is correlational instead of causational. Just some jumbled thoughts that come to mind 🙂

    I’m really interested to see what you conclude with your research!

    Yoshika

  4. Drew says:

    The idea that Facebook has had a drastic effect on its user base is definitely well-founded. I’ve even seen people begin devoting a majority of their free time to reading friend updates and sifting through thousands of pictures. I like the idea of being able to predict social trends through Facebook monitoring. When so much personal information is placed in the public domain, it becomes easy to start predicting certain patterns. In fact, I think the FBI or some other police agency were wanting to keep an eye on certain Facebook users to curb terrorist threats or predict other sorts of crime. I can’t remember the source, but if you could find something like that, it should be able to help your argument of being able to predict social trends.

  5. Willie T says:

    Hey Cristina,
    My name is Willie from a partner rhetoric class at the University of Texas at Austin (I’m sure with Facebook research and all, you can research what I look like!) I really like the subject you chose to do. The angle you took on Facebook as a modifier of social interactions has some real potential. I think actual examples from Facebook posts could be a fun and powerful way to communicate this change in our behavior. Also, I think the exigence of your topic could be strengthened by discussing the inherent dangers that are present when researchers essentially “facebook stalk” people to mine their data.
    -Willie

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