Facebook - The Online Social Experiment

Facebook - The Online Social Experiment

Facebook - The Online Social Experiment


Which country is the third largest in the world?

Well, according to its founder Mark Zuckerberg, if Facebook was a country it would certainly measure up to the statistics, hosting 900 million members; a figure that grows by the minute.

Today, Facebook has integrated itself deeply into the lives of millions of people from all corners of the globe, from youngsters to pensioners, businesses, politicians and teenagers alike. Facebook logs a staggering amount of personal records, collecting data from age to gender, location, email address, relationship status, employment status and more. Facebook allows us to make friends, forge new relationships, record births, graduation, marriage, and the loss of loved ones.This information is available on the social network in the form of videos, photos, posts, statuses, pages, notes, groups, cover photos…the list is inexhaustible.

Yet very little has been done with the sheer amount of data that Facebook holds behind its blue and white doors. Good news for privacy wary users, yet several young enthusiasts are beginning to understand the implications of Facebook’s potential for social change.

The online social experiment, Facebook is its own self-built laboratory containing numerous test subjects, compiling statistics and providing data almost by accident. A group of twelve researchers known as the Data Science Team are attempting to understand just how much Facebook can teach us about ourselves, and the way we interact with each other.

Human behaviour in terms of social behaviour and how much we influence each others’ lives is a widely-studied and well-researched topic, but never before has there been such an ease of access to information. Facebook users have the option to hide all of their information from gender to birth date and relationship status, yet only a fraction of users choose to conceal their intimate details.

The aim of the Data Science Team is not only to understand why humans behave as they do, but to understand how Facebook itself can benefit in terms of increasing its revenue and targeting its advertising more precisely.

From early in 2001, Data Science Team founder Cameron Marlow has been leading the search for the most contagious information on the internet. The Blogdex research project proved so popular that Marlow’s servers crashed. However, this site was the precursor to sites such as Digg and Reddit, where users can share their favourite blogs and posts.

In 2007, Marlow joined Facebook and was immediately hooked, keen to exploit Facebook’s potential as a research project. Working closely with Facebook’s managing team, he attempts to find social patterns and learn how to use them. Facebook can identify users that a person may already know through others, and can adjust the prominence of friends’ updates depending on how close they are to one another both in the real and virtual worlds.

Marlow admits that not everything on Facebook is as straightforward as seeing who ‘Likes’ what information. “[The] challenges include understanding why some ideas or fashions spread from a few individuals to become universal and others don’t, or to what extent a person’s future actions are a product of past communication with friends.”

Facebook has conducted numerous surveys to determine these variations in trends and thanks to the ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ features, this has never been easier. Collaborating with the University of Milan, Facebook recently analysed the data enclosed within 69 billion friend connections, and determined that on average it only takes four intermediary friends to introduce someone to a complete stranger. Statistics have also suggested that up to 93% of friends on Facebook have actually met in person.

Facebook constantly tweaks and enhances it services and carefully studies the results, and it is clear that close friends are the biggest influence of what information is shared. Yet the wide collection of loose friends  or ‘weak ties’ powerfully determine the information exposed to us without our realising.

Facebook can even highlight global trends, giant spikes in gross national happiness and loss, logging occurrences of negative phrases, posts, emotional music and shared external content. These fluctuations rise and fall with the occurrences of natural disasters, such as during the recent Italian earthquakes, and after the deaths of public figures. 

Social influence in Facebook can be used for a good cause, such as when Mark Zuckerberg decided to use his social network to increase organ donor registrations. Using a simple tick-box for users to display whether they were donors or not triggered a rapid response to the social pressure caused by this new notification. Consequently, organ donor registration saw an increase across 44 states in the USA.

By learning and understanding more about how small changes on Facebook influence our behaviour in the outside world, eventually businesses and others could make use of these powerful social tools, to encourage healthy eating, less binge drinking or to discourage racism. Facebook could initiate numerous social changes, and in fact already unites millions of people across the world from hugely varying social backgrounds, races and cultures.

Facebook of course needs an incredible amount of manpower and software to store all of its data, and in fact the 100 petabytes (a million gigabytes) of data is doubling year on year.

Whilst some believe that delving too much into everyone’s information in Facebook could be harmful to privacy, Marlow assures us: "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."


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