Thursday, December 27, 2007

Facebook Ethnography

It's not just student-ethnographers, entire institutions are using facebook as a means to study social behavior. The NYTimes ran a story last week about higher ed institutions that use facebook for its enormous quantities of unperturbed social data to pattern behaviors, map connections, and discover hidden tastes and preferences. "To study how personal tastes, habits and values affect the formation of social relationships" to be exact.

This is similar to the KSU digital ethnography researchers I have been tracking on YouTube, who use study the use of video and personal communication. One student-researcher and vlogger, named thepoasm, tells you everything about her professors, why she's studying, and what she wants from YouTube. She has become a vlogger herself and it has been interesting to see the transition take place progressively.

If institutions and researchers are behind this, it's easy to see why corporate marketing managers are interested. The goal is to create a Facebook that will become so consumerist that making purchases directly from Facebook will be common. FacePal - a PayPal client - is already in beta-testing. This will likely be integrated with the Marketplace feature, which allows you to create classified ads for housing, jobs, and other sales. But a highly corporatized Marketplace will make Facebook just like any other shopping site, so corporate exchanges will likely have low volume at least at first.

There is a rule for academic research that anything public can be studies. It's not clear whether online content is public or not. If you are someone's friend, potentially wall comments and things like that are public, since facebook publishes everything in the mini-feed. Although federal rules govern much of the academic research, each university approves professors’ research methods and they have different interpretations of the guidelines.

Most researchers do not get their studies approved by online subjects before studying, however, since that would compromise their behavior. It's also invasive to go ahead studying. KSU uses YouTube to study the way society works, and this is understandable since YouTube is public. Facebook is private and much more personal. The boundary between purely academic interests in social behavior and corporate manipulation is thin. It seems that the point at which academic research begins studying "tastes and preferences" is when it becomes of interest to corporate sponsors.

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