(KGW) -- Whether or not Big Brother is watching your every move, data scientists certainly are.
The lure of billions of individuals of all ages on social media means the eyes of research are more focused on you than ever. Those numbers will only continue to grow as researchers take note of your innermost thoughts, last night's dinner or the good news you've just shared with your besties. Where but on social media are billions of people in effect living their lives for all to see.
By tapping into that social media world, scientists have been able to find, for instance, that adults over age 65 who use Facebook see a boost in cognitive function and that organ donation registration dramatically increased as a result of the site. To some, it's a potential gold mine for behavioral research; to others, it risks intruding on personal behaviors without consent.
Facebook, in particular, which had 1.3 billion monthly users as of June 30, offers an unprecedented source of data, experts say. That's why a growing number of researchers at prominent universities worldwide align themselves with the private company. Among them is Yale University psychologist Marc Brackett, who was among the presenters Thursday, as the American Psychological Association's annual meeting opened in Washington. Those who study human behavior face stiff competition and fewer research dollars, so this marriage of convenience between social science researchers and Facebook is upending the research world.
"Facebook is the biggest, most exciting social world that has ever existed from a research perspective. It brings together billions of people. It makes our traditional lab studies — running 20 or 30 people at a time — seem insignificant," says social psychologist James Pennebaker of the University of Texas-Austin, a convention speaker but not at Brackett's session.
Pennebaker says the social networking site has a very different agenda.
"It was built by engineers. They had no social science background or even interest, but they stumbled upon this powerful social world. To their credit, they now realize they could learn more if they brought in some scientists to help them figure it out," he says.
But the cross purposes that can occur between a private company and a scientific organizationbecame evident last month when controversy arose over a 2012 study in which Facebook altered news feeds of almost 700,000 users in an experiment to see how such positive and negative posts might affect emotions. Facebook didn't seek permission, saying its data use policy allows for it. Users complained about being treated like "lab rats" without their knowledge; the journal issued an "expression of concern," and a non-profit research center that works for privacy on the Internet filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
"The research community has become increasingly commercialized – that happens when the project is under the wing of Facebook," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, based in Washington, which filed the complaint. "When a researcher says he has to make these new alignments to maintain the work, the consequence is privacy that would have otherwise been protected in a true research environment is lost."
Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at the New Haven, Conn., campus, says the data used in his study were collected "strictly through their typical use of Facebook."
"These are not experimental posts. There was no manipulation," he says.
The Yale team analyzed actions of 4.8 million teens who voluntarily participated in reporting something they didn't like on the site through a new Facebook tool aimed at fostering better online interactions. Of those reports, 58% were for photos; 42% for text. Just .04% were classified as bullying, Brackett says.
"This is just like years ago when you would study kids on a playground or in their natural environment," he says. "Facebook has become the natural environment where teenagers are developing."
At the convention, Yale researcher Zorana Ivcevic presented work by the University of California-Berkeley: an analysis of emoticons (digital symbols representing a facial expression of emotion) use in Facebook messages — almost 150 million emoticons by more than 900 million users in 183 nations over a one-week period last August. Findings show that higher levels of emoticon usage per capita and per user are associated with greater national life satisfaction and life expectancy. And,expressing a diversity of emotions is particularly important, she says.
Arturo Bejar of Facebook, enlisted the researchers for the convention research and spoke at the session.
"I deeply believe in partnering with academics," Bejar says, noting the importance of "leveraging what science has to teach us about how people relate to each other."
The research agreement at Berkeley is with the individual researchers as paid consultants who spend a few hours a week at Facebook's Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters. For Yale, Facebook provides grant money to the university for its four-person team. These collaborations are an example of the varied alliances between the social networking site and a university group or individual university researchers, some of which include financial support and others which do not.Facebook has given financial assistance to other research at Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University. At Stanford, the lab's website shows that Facebook provides $300,000 a year.
"In the past, most scientists who were studying basic social processes relied on grants from the National Science Foundation or other agencies," Pennebaker says. "But now, this private company holds all the keys to the kingdom."