If you’re a Facebook user, you’re also a research subject


By Karen Weise and Sarah Frier | Bloomberg News

The professor was incredulous. David Craig had been studying the rise of entertainment on social media for several years when a Facebook employee he didn’t know emailed him last December, asking about his research. “I thought I was being pumped,” Craig said. The company flew him to Menlo Park and offered him $25,000 to fund his ongoing projects, with no obligation to do anything in return. This was definitely not normal, but after checking with his school, University of Southern California, Craig took the gift. “Hell, yes, it was generous to get an out-of-the-blue offer to support our work, with no strings,” he said. “It’s not all so black and white that they are villains.”

Other academics got these gifts, too. One, who said she had $25,000 deposited in her research account recently without signing a single document, spoke to a reporter hoping maybe the journalist could help explain it. Another professor said one of his former students got an unsolicited monetary offer from Facebook, and he had to assure the recipient it wasn’t a scam. The professor surmised that Facebook uses the gifts as a low-cost way to build connections that could lead to closer collaboration later. He also thinks Facebook “happily lives in the ambiguity” of the unusual arrangement. If researchers truly understood that the funding has no strings, “people would feel less obligated to interact with them,” he said.

The free gifts are just one of the little-known and complicated ways Facebook works with academic researchers. For scholars, the scale of Facebook’s 2.2 billion users provides an irresistible way to investigate how human nature may play out on, and be shaped by, the social network. For Facebook, the motivations to work with outside academics are far thornier, and it’s Facebook that decides who gets access to its data to examine its impact on society.

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“Just from a business standpoint, people won’t want to be on Facebook if Facebook is not positive for them in their lives,” said Rob Sherman, Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer. “We also have a broader responsibility to make sure that we’re having the right impact on society.”

The company’s long been conflicted about with how to work with social scientists, and now runs several programs, each reflecting the contorted relationship Facebook has with external scrutiny. The collaborations have become even more complicated in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which was set off by revelations that a professor who once collaborated with Facebook’s in-house researchers used data collected separately to influence elections.

“Historically the focus of our research has been on product development, on doing things that help us understand how people are using Facebook and build improvements to Facebook,” Sherman said. Facebook’s heard more from academics and nonprofits recently who say “because of the expertise that we have, and the data that Facebook stores, we have …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Business

      

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