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Facebook's Telescope on Human Behavior

The leader of the social network’s efforts to mine its piles of data says the effort can help explain why people act as they do.

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.

Cameron Marlow

Facebook’s new Timeline, and the apps that connect with it, seem to encourage people to make the data they provide even more detailed.

One of our challenges to understanding people is the event horizon of Facebook. We have a relatively deep engagement with people starting when Facebook was created in 2004, but almost nothing prior. Timeline moves us to a world where we know more about the important events that occurred in people’s lives, regardless of when they occurred. For instance, you’ll see on my timeline that I studied abroad in Japan during high school in the early 1990s, something that I couldn’t express before. This allows us to study phenomena across time—for example, how many students are traveling abroad and whether this rate has changed with different presidential administrations.

Does the way that people behave on Facebook have any relation to real-world social behavior, though?

Every time a new communication medium is created, there is a debate about whether it is destructive of friendship and society in general. Facebook has worked to create a network that closely models real-world relationships. In fact, a recent Pew Internet and American Life study of U.S. Facebook users found that over 93 percent of their Facebook friends were people they had previously met offline. At the same time, as Facebook becomes a more integral part of people’s communication, it becomes difficult to disentangle what “real-world social behavior” means independent of Facebook.

Can you give an example of a recent “science” finding from your team?

A recent study we just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tells a new story about the way people adopt products and engage with them. The prevailing theories about this process suggested that what influences a person [to] adopt technologies is the number or percentage of friends who have already adopted the same technology, along with a person’s threshold for adopting such technologies. Our study shows that it’s less about the number of your friends who are using the technology, but more about their diversity. We found that people are much more likely to join Facebook and become engaged when friends from different parts of their lives have already joined and become engaged.

Do you work on understanding how people relate to ads within Facebook?

Some of the work we’re interested in understanding is how your friends influence your decisions to engage with advertising and brands. On the one hand, we choose our friends based on similar interests, and so it is likely that we have similar tastes. At the same time, seeing our friends’ interests presented to us along with advertising on Facebook may influence our decision to take action. A big question in this area is whether your similarity to your friends or your friends’ actions are responsible for you engaging with the ad, and that’s a question we’re currently studying.

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