Harvard Study: Social Networks Do Little To Influence Taste And Interests

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Here’s a bit of science that’s contrary to what a heavy utilizer of social networks might expect. Researchers at Harvard tracked the Facebook activity of hundreds of college students for four years, and came away with the rather unexpected result that the interests of friends don’t, in fact, tend to influence one another. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen at all, of course, but it’s clear that propagation and virality are subtler and more complex than some people (marketers and, I suspect, researchers) tend to think they are.

But the study is also clearly flawed in ways that those versed in social graphs are likely to easily perceive. Pulling useful data from social networks is like catching lightning in a bottle, and I wonder whether the findings may in fact be, as the study attempts to avoid, “a spurious consequence of alternative social processes.”

The central source of data for the study, in fact, doesn’t strike me as solid. Tracking the interests of college kids is a sketchy endeavor in and of itself, but tracking it via their Facebook favorites (i.e. what shows on your profile, not what you post about or share) seems unreliable.

After all, not only does everyone use the network in their own way, but the network itself has changed. Putting Wilco in your favorites is a different act from liking Wilco’s Facebook page, their official band site, or posting their latest video. Gauging someone’s interest in a movie or band by the favorites factor alone is inadequate. Their findings are essentially that taste doesn’t diffuse the way you might expect. But while the data support this, nothing supports the data.

Flattening huge sets of data and removing potentially conflative or distracting connections (“disentangling,” to use the researchers’ well-chosen word) is the bane of social research, and with a limited window on a huge field of data, like that these researchers had, it’s especially hard.

Who among these people was a supernode? What were their Twitter counts? What was the most common unit of interest? How many total posts, how many total favorite changes, how many total friends? The process of disentanglement only gets harder and harder, and the amount of indispensable data grows. The researchers have used advanced statistical techniques, but the data they were interpreting doesn’t seem to be at all complete.

The study does establish something that I think we perhaps understand is true already: you befriend people because of your overlaps in taste, but it’s rare that your existing friends change the tastes you already have. This is as much true out in the “real” world as it is online.

It seems to me that taste doesn’t propagate because taste is rarely propagated to begin with. And on Facebook, the focus is not on the laying up of collections (increasingly all anyone even sees is news, not favorites), the collaborative appreciation of any item or media in particular (for the most part, your “likes” disappear into a vast ocean of other likes), or the influencing of others (there are supernodes and influencers, but Facebook isn’t the proper tool for the job).

What propagates is individual items, events, songs, virals, and so on. To even collect, categorize, and weigh these collected items would not be to guarantee a meaningful result, since, as has been observed of the river, you never step into the same social stream twice. The status updates and comments of years past don’t strike me as a window into the soul of the user today. I have no doubt that some clever data divers and social archaeologists will find a way to make this data useful and powerful, but I don’t envy their task.

The Harvard study does indicate another thing, which is that social networks are, for now, “light” social interaction. Breaking into a new genre of music, discovering a new favorite director, getting book recommendations, these things don’t occur nearly as much on social networks as their proponents and heavy users would like to think. That’s changing, but Facebook doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to make the change to “serious” social interaction: the kind of trusted exchanges you have with friends in conversation or in repeated encounters over years that slowly convert you into a fan of David Lynch, or Scarlatti, or David Foster Wallace. Those are still the province of real life, it seems, even among the Facebook generation. But for how long?