Tuesday, August 9, 2022

What 21 Billion Facebook Friends Say About the US Economic Ladder

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Meta has publicly released information on 21 billion Facebook friendships as part of a research project into economic inequality in the United States, the company announced Today. Along with new insights into the intersection of money and friendships in America, the collaboration between Meta and the researchers gives us a different look at who Facebook is willing to share data with — and why.

The research team wanted to understand why people in some places in the US were more likely to move between economic brackets than in others. Using Meta’s information, along with other data, a research team built a dataset for a pair of economic mobility studies, which were published Monday in the journal Nature. One study found that people who grow up in areas where there are more friendships between high- and low-income people are more likely to get out of poverty and climb the economic ladder.

“Growing up in a community that is connected across class boundaries improves children’s outcomes and gives them a better chance of lifting out of poverty,” Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist and principal investigator on the study, told The New York Times.

However, many places do not allow much interaction between high and low income people, the second of the two studies found. And even if a neighborhood allows for that kind of interaction, people are more likely to befriend people in similar economic boxes.

Chetty and his collaborators got access to Facebook’s data for the first time in 2018 as part of an effort to understand economic inequality and vast income disparities in the US. Meta researchers collaborated with Chetty on the project, and other members of the research team are affiliated with groups that have contracts with Meta.

The researchers collected data on Facebook users in the United States between the ages of 25 and 44 who used the platform in the past 30 days, had at least 100 friends on the platform, and linked their account to their zip code — an example that was used for 72 million people, that’s more than 80 percent of the U.S. population in that age bracket. The team measured the socioeconomic status of users based on things such as location, education level, relationship status and language. The analysis then compared the socioeconomic status of individuals with the status of their Facebook friends.

Now the full dataset, which includes 21 billion Facebook friendships, is available through Facebook’s Data for Good program. People can search in the public website and see the economic connectedness of different communities, including their own. Researchers can download the data for additional research.

Meta and Facebook tout the Data for Good program as a signal of the company’s willingness to partner with outside research teams and share its platform’s wealth of data. And that data is often extremely useful for researchers; for example, it helped track how people’s movement changed during the pandemic.

But that openness was mainly focused on researching how people live their lives outside of Facebook, not how Facebook or other meta-platforms, like Instagram, influence people’s lives or behavior. The company has been much less willing to collaborate with outside researchers or share raw data on things like the mental health of people who use Meta’s products.

The new studies provide valuable insight into economic mobility in the US, and the data could help researchers understand how people work in the US build relationships. Tech giants like Meta are some of the only ways researchers can find the data they need to conduct this type of analysis. However, relying on Meta and Facebook for that information means the companies have more control over the research questions being asked in the first place.

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