Understanding Identity consumption in facebook

What was this about, what happened?

In March 2008 a quantitative research project was devised to analyse user profile data within Facebook. A data collection algorithm was created and incorporated into an application delivered to users via the Facebook Platform. Over the following months through interpretation of acquired user profile data and a review of existing online social networking research a new algorithm was developed to attempt to analyse identity consumption within Facebook. The algorithm consisted of three stages to analyse how representations of mutual social capital, shared photo tags and common interests of created fragmented presentations of self.

Unfortunately, during testing the applications access to Facebook data was withdrawn presumably as a result of a violation of the Facebook Platform terms of service. Although it is regarded by its creators as an open platform supporting data portability, analysis of network data has previously been unwelcomed by Facebook. However, by developing the application within Facebook, prior to access being withdrawn, mutual social capital and shared photo tags were discovered to be widely independent. A conclusion leading to suggest that in accordance with prior Facebook research, virtual profile identity is often a miss-representation of offline identity. Documented in this report is a detailed analysis of identity consumption within Facebook followed by a critique of the Facebook Platform as a tool for social network research.

Why is everyone researching social networking?

The rise of the social networking phenomena - In recent years there has been a rapid increase in the creation and popularity of community driven web sites that provide a social networking service. This new web phenomena driven by sites such as MySpace, Friendster, Orkut LinkedIn and most recently Facebook has infected tens of millions of web users and hence they have become a popular field for research among academics worldwide. While online social networking research is relatively new, the theory behind social networking practice itself and the creation of such networks has been an established research topic for some time among scientists and philosophers of human sociology.

The social networking model model - In social science, social networks are used to graphically represent the various social structures that can be identified between individual entities or related groups of individuals. These structures can be based on a wide range of variables such as race, class, gender and many other attributes. A social network diagram typically consists of nodes or objects (people or organisations) that are tied to other nodes and a mapping of the relationships they share. Producing a graphical representation of a social network can help to evaluate the mappings connecting a particular node to others and help to evaluate the social capital held by that particular node. In essence, a node that has a large number of mappings to other nodes also with a large number of mappings, the more knowledge and influence that node will have within the network.

Examples of online social networking services - In online social networks users are offered a range of technical facilities such as creating discussion groups, access to instant messaging services, file sharing, media uploading and blogging. A more consistent feature is the ability to create a user profile. In providing a user profile creation service users are able to openly publish their personal details and social interests within the network. The visibility of profiles to other users can vary but this is often ultimately at the user's discretion. Use of public profiles is common in sites such as MySpace and Bebo which heavily rely on upon user generated content. Other sites such as Orkut and Facebook require a mapping to be in place between users in order for them to view each other's profile. Furthermore, within the site Facebook, it is also at the users discretion exactly how much profile content a 'friend' can see. While the publishing of personal details such as date of birth and other demographic data has been heavily scrutinized by security experts and research organisation in the past it appears other profile information has bypassed analysis.

Where are benefits in social network research - While there are hundreds of online social networking services available which cater for a wide range of interests and activities they are all fairly consistent in their technical architecture. This has become a significant reason for them attracting interest from academics and industry researchers alike and has allowed in some cases for thousands of user profiles to be crawled and their containing data analysed. In online communities typical real world demographic variables such as race, age and gender are of low importance. Instead psychographic data such as user interests, values and personality take over. In social networking sites, with psychographic variables heavily populating user profiles, it is this data that forms our fundamental second digital identity. Analysing this data will also in theory cater for better market segmentation of social networking users.