Research uncovers positive side of Facebook

October 30, 2007


Research done by Communication Arts and Sciences professors suggests students’ use of Facebook has a positive correlation with their ability to gain social capital through relationships they build online.


Professors Charles Steinfield, Nicole Ellison and Cliff Lampe are investigating the online social networking community’s effects on users’ daily lives and relationships.


“Our Facebook research shows that there are very strong correlations between Facebook use and students' perceptions of the extent to which they have various forms of social capital,” says Steinfield.


Ellison describes social capital as the benefits one realizes from a social relationship with another person.  This can include anything from access to different social circles to career networking. 


Lampe says most studies concerning Facebook in the past focused on concerns about privacy, while this study shows that there are benefits connected to the use of Facebook.


“It is important to realize that there are very real social benefits that people are deriving from the use of services like Facebook, when used appropriately,” says Steinfield.


These benefits include new information and new perspectives that are obtained through relationships with different people, according to Ellison.


“People who use Facebook more have larger networks of people who are different from themselves, and they receive social capital benefits from those relationships,” she says.


Steinfield, Lampe and Ellison began collecting data relating to students’ use of Facebook in the fall of 2005.  They surveyed 286 undergraduate students to obtain demographic information about users and also users’ opinions of Facebook.  In depth interviews were also conducted to understand how and why students are using Facebook.   


For example, students who took the survey indicated what information they chose to include on their personal profiles, including high school, relationship status, classes, phone number etc.  In addition to this, students were also asked questions like how long per day they spend on Facebook as well as self-esteem questions and questions about their involvement at MSU.


Data was also collected through “screen scraping,” a method which automatically downloads and stores information on Facebook.  However, Lampe says they had to stop this type of research after Facebook changed its terms of service. 


Steinfield says this study is built on previous work of all three professors. 


"We've all studied many aspects of computer-mediated communication, computer-based collaboration, and online communities over a number of years," he says.


Lampe has studied online communities such as Slashdot and Everything2 as well as Facebook.  He also collaborated with Dave Pullson in creating the Great Lakes Wiki, an online community which allows Michiganders to share stories of their communities. 


Steinfield has conducted much research on ecommerce including its influence on buyers and sellers, the role of location, and the effects ecommerce has at the industry level.


As well as studying other online communities, Ellison has also researched relationship formation and self presentation as it applies to online dating services.


Steinfield says they have not decided when they will conclude their research. 


“The work will continue since we believe it is useful to examine how students’ use of these sites changes over time and across life transitions,” he says. 

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