MIT Wonders What Facebook Can Do With Personal Data

By Justin Lafferty 

We all know that Facebook has massive amounts of users’ personal data. Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review recently delved into the issue of what Facebook can do with all of that information, in a post by writer Tom Simonite that deftly explores the fascinating yet largely unknown world of Facebook’s in-house and bookish social science arm. Will Facebook use it for good or evil?

Cameron Marlow, who has a PhD from MIT, is Facebook’s “in-house sociologist.” More importantly, he heads up Facebook’s Data Science Team — a group of 12 researchers who study everything liked or shared on the page. They also browse through vital statistics such as age, gender, and e-mail address. While many people see this as a Big Brother effect, Marlow sees this grand collection of data as a treasure trove of human interaction.

Identifying patterns, the researchers consult with Facebook managers to decipher how the company might experiment with advertising or make new attempts to direct users’ behavior on the network. Facebook has long profited from understanding that feeling good is big business.

One of the Data Science Team members even created a way to track “gross national happiness,” citing statistics from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project saying that 93 percent of Facebook friends have met in person, and figuring much of the interaction on Facebook is as valid as real life. The team tracks key positive or negative words and phrases in posts to gauge how the country generally feels about life.

Marlow previously put two years in at Yahoo, where he studied socialization on the Internet. Back in 2001, he started the Blogdex site-slash-research-project that presented most widely sp(read) blog posts. So “contagious” was his site (said to preface aggregators Reddit and Digg) that its servers reportedly crashed.

Described as more tweed-blazer, mussed-hair, absent-minded professor than wire-framed celebrineer, Facebook supports its minority resident academics. Members of team academia are encouraged to, on their own clock, publish their findings in academic journals and collaborate with research peers seated at universities, reports Simonite.

And studies, they abound. One recent paper sought to identify which kinds of posts incite supportive feelings from Facebook friends. Another observed what types of status updates elicited responses from Facebook friends new to the social network.

Of course, Marlow’s team can also help Facebook’s bottom line:

For one thing, Marlow is confident that exploring this resource will revolutionize the scientific understanding of why people behave as they do. His team can also help Facebook influence our social behavior for its own benefit and that of its advertisers. This work may even help Facebook invent entirely new ways to make money.

Later in the story, Marlow talks about how his team doesn’t want to use personal data for manipulative reasons, but rather to better understand how people interact within Facebook:

Our goal is not to change the pattern of communication in society. Our goal is to understand it so we can adapt our platform to give people the experience that they want.

For instance, Facebook used its social clout last month to increase organ donations, showing that the social trends and information the social network has can be used for good.

Readers: Do you think Facebook will make good use of the personal data, or are you not quite trusting it yet?

Julie D. Andrews contributed to this post. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.