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Viral information: A visualization of how a popular image spread between Facebook users.

One way to describe Facebook is as the most extensive data set on human social behavior that ever was. Every month more than 845 million people record and share traces of their daily lives, relationships, and online activity through their friend connections, messages, photos, check-ins, and clicks. The richness of that information goes some way to explain why the company is expected to become worth more than $80 billion when it floats on the stock market later this year.

One research group inside Facebook, known as the Data Team, is tasked with the challenge of mathematically sifting through that data to look for patterns that explain the how and why of human social interactions. The people who do that, mostly PhDs with research experience in computer and social sciences, look for insights that will help Facebook tune its products, but have also begun to publish their findings in the scientific community.

The Data Team’s leader, Cameron Marlow, likens what they do to building a telescope, saying that the techniques they develop will transform scientific understanding of human behavior in the same way that astronomy transformed our understanding of the cosmos. Technology Review’s computing editor, Tom Simonite, met with Marlow at Facebook’s offices to hear about what the company’s data science can uncover.

TR: Why does Facebook need a team of academically trained researchers like yours?

Marlow: We conduct science research to answer the most pressing product questions. How do people derive value from Facebook? What motivates interactions? How do these change over time? The science of Facebook is the science of social interaction, so our work addresses fundamental questions about human dynamics, such as personal influence, tie strength, information diffusion, and social support. 

Facebook has rethought how to make research have a greater impact in an industrial setting—using it to help make decisions and evolve our products. Traditional research labs like Bell Labs or Xerox Park have [shown that corporate research can have] a profound impact on culture and technology, developing countless inventions.

Why is some of your research essentially academic, published for others to use?

We embrace the company philosophy of openness in our communication with the rest of the academic world. Our academic research provides us with an opportunity to get some of the smartest people thinking about the questions we face, which are different than those that researchers have encountered before.

The world of social science is transforming in light of an increase in the scale, granularity, and precision of social and behavioral data available online. We imagine that future generations of academics will be adapting to this new influx of data, and we would like to be a part of the development of this new science.

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Credits: Facebook

Tagged: Computing

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