Facebook and other social networking sites such as Twitter, Myspace, and Friendster, among others, revolutionized society. They transformed the Internet into a venue in which not only dedicated content producers disseminate information, but in which ordinary people as well can share their lives with others and interact among each other. Social networking has changed the offline world as well: from establishing new social norms about friendship and relationships, to aiding in the organization of groups such as class groups, and, more importantly political groups, Facebook has turned the Internet into a tool for real world benefit. However, major social networking sites as they currently exist have one fundamental problem: they do not seek to be a mechanism through which opinions form, change, and grow; rather, they exist for people to share their preexisting opinions.
Don’t get me wrong: social networking has the potential to accomplish this. Furthermore, it is true that already by scanning someone’s Twitter page, or by randomly happening upon a friend’s opinion in a status, I might develop my opinion further about an issue. However, I have found that it is my experience that 140 word (maximum) posts and short statuses which seek “likes” have, at best, informed me of the basics of others’ opinions. Social networking as it exists today just does not seem to be equipped to allow people to disseminate well-thought out views about issues, hold discussions which are easily spread to others, and, most importantly, allow people to view the aggregate of users’ opinions about issues.
Today I will touch on one proposition which could substantially alter the way we view social networks. What I propose is that rather than Facebook deliberately turning away social science researchers and other academic data collectors, Facebook should provide free, open-source data on the site itself. This would be good, both for society and for Facebook.
It is widely known that Facebook’s potential for research on a wide number of social, political, and economic issues is extremely great. Indeed, a great deal of research has been done using Facebook’s vast capacities for data mining, and an even greater deal of research has never occurred due to Facebook’s unnecessarily strained relationship with research institutions. Open data on Facebook would allow social and political science researchers to much more easily — and openly — study trends and conduct experiments. However, I believe that the even greater potential of this proposal lies with ordinary people. Regular users would be able to compare their friends’ beliefs with those of society at large, for example. Obviously, it would be difficult to implement such an idea: how exactly does Facebook determine which issues are important? How would Facebook decide how to measure such trends? I believe that in collaboration with researchers, Facebook can transparently begin the process of allowing people to understand more about society.
Lastly, open data could be great for Facebook. What makes Facebook great now is the free exchange of social capital that is enabled through the medium of social networking. However, efforts to open up intellectual capital — alongside with structural changes to the site to allow for a space for more serious discussion, posting, and dissemination — could free up and make possible, more than ever before in the offline world, the ability for people to grow their opinions and see, in real time, how society thinks about things. This would attract more use and interest, from people and governments alike.
Would Facebook ever implement such a policy? It certainly does not seem like it right now. But I believe that in an age when our actions on the Internet become less and less meaningful, the pressure will mount for one site to differentiate itself and provide on an unprecedented scale the seriousness that people currently crave.
If Facebook doesn’t do it, I guarantee that someone else will.