Two of Facebook’s data scientists were in Cambridge today presenting on big data at EmTech, the conference by MIT Technology Review, and discussing the science behind the network. Eytan Bakshy and Andrew Fiore each have a PhD and have held research or lecture positions at top universities. Their job is to find value in Facebook’s massive collection of data.
And their presentation underscored, unsurprisingly, the academic roots of their work. Fiore, for instance, cited the seminal 1973 sociology paper on networks, The Strength of Weak Ties, to explain Facebook’s research showing that we’re more likely to share links from our close acquaintances, but given the volume of those weaker connections, in aggregate weak ties matter more. As Facebook attempts to extract value from its users, it’s standing on the shoulders of social science to do it. It may seem banal to point out, but its insights are dependent on a rich history of academic research…
These data scientists were referencing an article written by sociologist Mark Granovetter that has to be one of the most cited sociology articles of all time. I just looked up the 1973 piece in the database Sociological Abstracts and the site says the article has been cited 4,251 times. Granovetter helped kick off a exploding body of research on social networks and how they affect different areas of life.
Some of the other conclusions in this article are interesting as well. The writer suggests the pipeline between academia and Facebook should be open both ways as both the company and scholars would benefit from Facebook data:
Select academics do frequently get granted access to data at companies like Facebook to conduct and publish research (though typically not the datasets), and some researchers manage to glean public data by scraping the social network. But not all researchers are satisfied. After tweeting about the issue, I heard from Ben Zhao, an associate professor of Computer Science at UC Santa Barbara, who has done research on Facebook. “I think many of us in academia are disappointed with the lack of effort to engage from FB,” he told me over email.
The research mentioned above and presented at EmTech was published earlier this year, by Facebook, on Facebook. Which is great. But it points to the power that Facebook, Google, and others now have in the research environment. They have all the data, and they can afford to hire top tier researchers to work in-house. And yet it’s important that the insights now being generated about how people live and communicate be shared with and verified by the academic community.
This is the world of big data and who has access to the more proprietary data will be very important. More broadly, it should also lead to discussions about whether corporations should be able to sit on such potentially valuable data and primarily pursue profits or whether they should make it more available so we can learn more about humanity at large. I know which side many academics would be on…