With the upcoming presidential elections, candidate choices and issues are certainly becoming hot topics of discussion among friends. But can you pick out the people in your social network who think American troops should remain in Iraq, or favor government-provided health insurance? How well do you actually know your friends? And how well do they know you? The Human Social Dynamics group at Yahoo! Research is after the answers to these questions, using a novel research strategy—an application that runs on the popular social networking site, Facebook.
Friend Sense, built by Yahoo! Researchers Duncan Watts, Sharad Goel and Winter Mason, addresses two empirical paradoxes that have puzzled political scientists for years. The first paradox is the widespread perception among Americans that the US is a politically polarized country, when in fact numerous surveys indicate that Americans are surprisingly difficult to classify into simple categories. Many people, for example, see the country as divided into “red” states and “blue” states, but research shows that most Americans are neither consistently “liberal” nor “conservative.” In fact, among self-declared Republicans, 85% take a non-conservative stance on abortion, affirmative action, or government support for health insurance. Similar counter-intuitive results can be found among self-declared Democrats.
The second paradox is that people also tend to think that their friends’ beliefs are more similar to their own than they actually are—suggesting that people don’t know their friends as well as they think they do. Unlike the first paradox, however, this has yet to be tested directly, mostly because surveys that compare the responses of friends are extremely difficult to conduct in practice.
Friend Sense solves this problem by running on top of a very large social network—Facebook. The application, which can be quickly downloaded for free, asks users to answer a series of yes or no questions about their beliefs and attitudes, and also asks them how their Facebook friends would answer the same questions.
Some of the questions include “Do you side with the Palestinians more than the Israelis regarding the war in the Middle East?” “Do you think those with high incomes should pay a larger proportion in taxes than those who earn low incomes?” Not all questions are this contentious. Others are a bit more light-hearted, such as “Has your friend walked out of a movie before it ended because it was too awful to watch?” Friend Sense, therefore, is both a test bed for theories of political polarization, and a compelling Facebook application that gives people a rare view into what their friends, family members, and co-workers think.
By building a survey application on top of Facebook, Friend Sense takes advantage of social network data in a novel way. “Even with massive datasets now available to network researchers,” Watts says, “we are often still in the position of having some data fall in our lap, and then having to ask ‘To what question is this data the answer?’ In this case, we started out with a well-defined research question and then designed the application around it. As an added bonus, it is fun to play and even a little addictive.”
What’s next for Friend Sense? If the application gains further popularity, there is a potential for different questions that further explore the content of social relations. Alternatively different populations could be studied by running the application on other social network sites. Regardless, the mere existence of such an application is worthy of note. “This study simply wouldn’t have been feasible one or two years ago,” says Watts. “It’s becoming clear today that other disciplines beyond computer science such as economics and sociology are necessary for understanding the Web, and conversely that the Web is an incredibly useful tool for doing interesting social science.”
Project Link: http://www.facebook.com/apps/application.php?id=7890187783