Home Facebook, Happiness & The User Data Black Market

Facebook, Happiness & The User Data Black Market

Facebook says that people who actively share updates and messages on Facebook score higher on happiness tests than people who passively consume updates on the site. The company shared findings today of a user survey cross referenced with historical data about respondents’ use of the site.

“The results were clear,” the company said. “The more people use Facebook, the better they feel. They have higher levels of both kinds of social capital, and feel less lonely…Regardless of how much time people in the study spent on Facebook, how many friends they had, and how many News Feed stories they read, those directly interacting with their friends scored higher levels of well-being.”

Of course there isn’t a causal relationship that can be proven here, just a correlation. People who are already unusually happy might be more likely to share actively on Facebook – it hasn’t yet been proven that sharing on Facebook makes you happier.

More sophisticated analysis could be done by a whole world of researchers, if Facebook would open up its data. Failing to do so, data black markets are sure to fill the demand from unscrupulous companies online.

The Value of Data

Previous Related Coverage

Analysis of Facebook user data is something we’ve been calling a huge opportunity for years. Unfortunately, access to that data remains limited to the company’s own internal research team and a very select group of collaborators. The data isn’t shared publicly, only occasional results of analysis are.

We spoke with a social science researcher at one large technology company this month who told us that Facebook used to hand over user data for study whenever it was asked. These days, now that Facebook is much bigger, not so much – presumably because of legal concerns.

In 2008 Facebook analyzed its users conversations to demonstrate that it could accurately predict changes in Presidential opinion polls. Outsiders have on occasion demonstrated some really interesting observations about the state of the world based on spidered and scraped Facebook data, but the company uses legal pressure to shut down public sharing of bulk Facebook data by outsiders.

Twitter has been similarly reticent about letting outsiders grab large quantities of historical data for analysis. This week that company donated its entire historical archive to the Library of Congress, but upon seeing the details of the arrangement it appears doubtful that outsiders will be able to access the data programmatically for serious number crunching and sociological insight.

Black Markets

We’re hearing people whisper about black market stores of Facebook and Twitter data, but each time an above-board party seeks to make such data available, even if only to the academic research community, they get shut down. Meanwhile, unscrupulous companies presumably have the money to buy whatever data they want and do all the privacy-violating, spammy things these networks fear would happen if they made the data available legally. Comparing this to prohibition may be a fair analogy, but it isn’t one that Facebook, at least, has been willing to comment on to us.

The net result is that you get the crime and dangerous moonshine of prohibition, because you’re concerned about the consequences of legal fine wine and microbrews. Except in this case it isn’t a drink we’re talking about, it’s social self-awareness on an unprecedented level.

The net result is that you get the crime and dangerous moonshine of prohibition, because you’re concerned about the consequences of legal fine wine and microbrews. Except in this case it isn’t a drink we’re talking about, it’s social self-awareness on an unprecedented level.

Imagine the insight that could be gleaned from analyzing the discussions and connections that happen on Facebook, cross referenced with any number of other data sets. The company says it’s concerned about user privacy, but several major initiatives underway indicate otherwise.

These days what gets shared publicly are conclusions of the company’s internal analysis – and it’s always good news: Facebook is good for you, for example. Kind of a cheap buzz.

That’s why we hope that Facebook really does open up a Firehose of user activity data at its developer conference next week. The schedule for the event was just posted and it will be live streamed online.

Each time Facebook demonstrates that it can glean meaningful insights from bulk analysis of its user data and cross referencing that data against other data (like a survey) – it’s just all the more evidence that the outside world ought to be allowed to analyze the data as well. Some people probably are. Why not give the good guys a shot?

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