Whether or not Big Brother is watching your every move, data scientists certainly are.
The lure of billions of individuals of all ages on social media means the eyes of research are more focused on you than ever. Those numbers will only continue to grow as researchers take note of your innermost thoughts, last night's dinner or the good news you've just shared with your besties. Where but on social media are billions of people in effect living their lives for all to see.
By tapping into that social media world, scientists are able to explore a host of life's questions. Though relationship issues may be the most logical, researchers have used Facebook to find that adults over age 65 who use it see a boost in cognitive function; that organ donation registration dramatically increased as a result of such use; and that Facebook can cause people to change their health behaviors. To some, it's a potential gold mine for behavioral research; to others, it risks intruding on personal behaviors without consent by those under the microscope.
Facebook, in particular, which had 1.3 billion monthly users as of June 30, offers an unprecedented source of data, experts say. That's why a growing number of researchers at prominent universities worldwide align themselves with the private company.
Among them is Yale University psychologist Marc Brackett. He'll present findings about teens and their unpleasant Facebook experiences today, as the American Psychological Association opens its annual meeting in Washington.
Those who study human behavior face stiff competition and fewer research dollars. This marriage of convenience between social science researchers and Facebook is upending the research world as scientists in academia and private enterprise find themselves sometimes at odds.
"From the science side, this is an absolute gold mine," says social psychologist James Pennebaker of the University of Texas-Austin, who will speak at the convention but is not part of Brackett's session. "Facebook is the biggest, most exciting social world that has ever existed from a research perspective. It brings together billions of people. It makes our traditional lab studies — running 20 or 30 people at a time — seem insignificant."
Pennebaker says the social networking site has a very different agenda.
"It was built by engineers. They had no social science background or even interest, but they stumbled upon this powerful social world. To their credit, they now realize they could learn more if they brought in some scientists to help them figure it out," he says. "This always will be a constant tension. The reason this is so complicated is because we are dealing with a private company vs. a pure scientific organization."
These cross-purposes became evident last month when controversy arose over a 2012 study in which Facebook manipulated news feeds of almost 700,000 users in an experiment to see how such positive and negative posts might affect emotions. Facebook didn't seek permission, saying its data use policy allows for it.
Academic research does require informed consent, and although Cornell University researchers co-authored the study published in June in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, issues about ethical standards and user privacy quickly surfaced. Users complained about being treated like "lab rats" without their knowledge. The journal issued an "expression of concern," and a non-profit research center that works for privacy on the Internet filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
"The research community has become increasingly commercialized – that happens when the project is under the wing of Facebook," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, based in Washington, which filed the complaint. "When a researcher says he has to make these new alignments to maintain the work, the consequence is privacy that would have otherwise been protected in a true research environment is lost."
Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at the New Haven, Conn., campus, says the data used in his study were collected "strictly through their typical use of Facebook."
"These are not experimental posts. There was no manipulation," he says.
"This is just like years ago when you would study kids on a playground or in their natural environment," he says. "Facebook has become the natural environment where teenagers are developing."
For another study at the session, a team from the University of California-Berkeley analyzed the use of emoticons (digital symbols representing a facial expression of emotion) in Facebook messages, including more than 29 million occurrences in 109 nations over a one-week period last August. Findings show that higher levels of emoticon usage per capita and per user are associated with greater national life satisfaction and life expectancy.
The research agreement at Berkeley is with the individual researchers as paid consultants who spend a few hours a week at Facebook's Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters. For Yale, Facebook provides grant money to the university for its four-person team. Yale's weekly meetings are via Skype, says Arturo Bejar of Facebook, who enlisted the researchers for both projects and will talk at the session.
"I deeply believe in partnering with academics," Bejar says, noting the importance of "leveraging what science has to teach us about how people relate to each other."
These collaborations are an example of the varied alliances between the social networking site and a university group or individual university researchers. Facebook has given financial assistance to other research at Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University, which gets $300,000 a year from Facebook for the school's lab website.
"In the past, most scientists who were studying basic social processes relied on grants from the National Science Foundation or other agencies," Pennebaker says. "But now, this private company holds all the keys to the kingdom."