In 2016 Social Media report, PEW suggests that more than 68% U.S adults are Facebook users, making it an influential platform at the center of social networking domain. The amount of data generated by these Facebook users is enormous and can be extremely beneficial for social research. Facebook has transformed the ways we conduct social research. In my third-semester research project of graduate school, I experienced how Facebook can be an effective tool to distribute surveys, reach participants without worrying about geographical constraints, and collect the data. Rife et al (2016) suggest that Facebook has major advantages when it comes to social research because “its massive international user base presents a large pool of potential participants, the explicitly social nature of Facebook encourages users to share content which can aid ‘viral’ participant recruitment, and researchers can import users’ pro- file data containing demographic, interests and social network data”. Moreover, Bhutta (2012) also states researchers can utilize Facebook for survey research, which can be less expensive, faster, and can be accomplished with least amount of assistance from other people.
Source: The Wall Street journal
Researches have been utilizing different methods to explore Facebook’s data. Researchers have utilized Facebook data to test emotional contagion (emotional contagion is an experiment in which people transfer positive and negative moods and emotions to others) based on computer-mediated communication, especially via social media communication (Kramer et al, 2014). Others have utilized Facebook’s easy connectivity for recruiting participants, especially for snowball sampling. American Psychological Association suggests that along with collecting self-reported questionnaires researchers can also use Facebook’s profile data such as job positions, schools attended, degrees accomplished, age, and gender for their social research projects (Kosinski et al, 2016). Moreover, researchers have also taken advantage of publicly available profile information on the Facebook. For example, in 2011, Noel et al conducted a content analysis study to examine identity construction and gender roles in social networking sites by studying and comparing the profile photographs of male and female Facebook users. Similarly, researchers Birnbaum and Gardner (2009) conducted a photographic content analysis of Facebook profiles of college students to analyze how they present themselves on Facebook and what type of impressions they want their fellow students to form of them while looking at their profiles. Some social research studies have explored Facebook data by using big data tools such as Wisdom. Recently in 2017, researchers Brandtzaeg and Petter Bae used big data tool ‘Wisdom’ to explore the gender disparities in various Facebook liking practices concerning expressions of civic engagement across various countries.
Facebook data may seem to be one of the ideal ways to conduct social research, however, it comes with its own challenges. Zimmer (2010) suggests that most pressing issues of using Facebook data for social research are the lack of privacy and anonymity. Since collected data can be associated or traced to the profile it was collected from, it violates subject’s privacy and anonymity expectations. Also, the data collected on Facebook is often likely to be associated with thousands of different Facebook users/profiles. As a result, it can become difficult to ask consent from each and every user to use their data in the research. On the other hand, in traditional social research, researchers go through vigorous ethics review process with Institutional Review Board to align their project with the ethical guidelines. Rife et al (2016) also note that one of the challenges of using Facebook data for social research is determining to what degree it can be generalized to a larger population.
I think we are a fortunate group of people as we are presented with an opportunity to conduct our research where results can be achieved “in a moment”. By exploring Facebook profiles or by analyzing the already available Twitter data, we have a choice to conduct our research with the variety of quicker methods than traditional social research methods. In this course, we are learning how we can combine the technical skills of a data scientist to collect social media data and analysis/inferential skills of a sociologist to examine the collected data. I find myself extremely fortunate to be in this position. But then I wonder, how to bring my ethics training of IRB CITI in the mix to try to protect the social media users? How can I try and not become someone who is using the collected data against the Facebook users themselves, like advertisers? Russell (2014) states that with great power such as this, comes greater responsibility. As one small part of this emerging sociological field, I think we will all have to work together and establish some guidelines about how we can take advantage of this opportunity while protecting our research subjects.
Bhutta, C. (2012). Not by the Book: Facebook as a Sampling Frame. Sociological Methods & Research, 41(1), 57-88. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0049124112440795
Birnbaum, M. G.Taking goffman on a tour of facebook: College students and the presentation of self in a mediated digital environment (Order No. AAI3320071). Available from Sociological Abstracts. (61775154; 200932158). Retrieved from http://proxy.library.vcu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy.library.vcu.edu/docview/61775154?accountid=14780
Brandtzaeg, P. B. (2017). Facebook is no “great equalizer”: A big data approach to gender differences in civic engagement across countries. Social Science Computer Review, 35(1), 103. Retrieved from http://proxy.library.vcu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy.library.vcu.edu/docview/1856555782?accountid=14780
Hum, N. J., Chamberlin, P. E., Hambright, B. L., Portwood, A. C., Schat, A. C., & Bevan, J. L. (2011). A picture is worth a thousand words: A content analysis of facebook profile photographs. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(5), 1828-1833. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.library.vcu.edu/10.1016/j.chb.2011.04.003
Kosinski, M., Matz, S., Gosling, S., Popov, V., & Stillwell, D. (2015). Facebook as a research tool for the social sciences: Opportunities, challenges, ethical considerations, and practical guidelines. American Psychologist, 70(6), 543-556. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0039210
Kramer, A., Guillory, J., & Hancock, J. (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 111(24), 8788-8790. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1320040111
Rife, S., Cate, K., Kosinski, M., & Stillwell, D. (2014). Participant recruitment and data collection through Facebook: the role of personality factors. International Journal Of Social Research Methodology, 19(1), 69-83. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13645579.2014.957069
Russell, M. (2013). Mining the Social Web : Data Mining from Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, Google+, GitHub, and More (2nd ed.). O’Reilly Media.
Zimmer, M. (2010). ‘‘But the data is already public’’: on the ethics of research in Facebook. Springer Science+Business Media B.V. Retrieved from https://rampages.us/socydigitaldata/wp-content/uploads/sites/21889/2016/07/But-the-dat-is-already-public_on-the-ethics-of-research-in-Facebook.pdf