Studying Facebook: Research on the social network that has changed communication

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Paul A. Soukup, SJ

 Paul A. Soukup, SJ / Full Text Article / 11 January 2019


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Even before Facebook garnered intense media and government attention in early 2018 over its dealings with Cambridge Analytica, communication researchers had already examined Mark Zuckerberg’s social network for many of the same reasons that made it attractive to that private firm. In particular, they took the opportunity of using its enormous cache of data and information about individuals to learn more about communication processes, not in laboratory settings, but in the wider world.[1] This data attracts communication researchers looking for examples that represent normal human interactions, most of it available without the deceptions involved in the Cambridge Analytica procedures.

A review of over 400 studies published in the last 12 years[2] shows how communication researchers have made use of Facebook in their studies. This social network began in 2004 as a college-based site, opening to the public in 2005. Like other similar platforms, it taps into a common human desire to connect with others. At its most basic level, social networking begins in a face-to-face setting with people all over the world having their networks of family, neighbors, coworkers, friends, and so on. Facebook and the other online social media sites simply provide an easier and more extensive way to link people, who can then share interests, memories, activities, news, and so forth, maintaining memory and artifacts in online storage.

To give a sense of what communication researchers have discovered about Facebook, this essay will briefly review their work, focusing on theoretical communication perspectives, interpersonal communication, journalism, education, politics, business and nonprofit enterprises, ethical issues and other areas of research.

Theoretical communication perspectives

Among the specific communication studies of Facebook, researchers often applied existing theoretical perspectives common in communication research, judging it not unlike other media theorized over the last 75 years of media research. For example, a number of scholars looked at the rate and scale of the adoption of Facebook, using the diffusion of innovation theories first developed to describe how groups learn about new things and decide whether or not to use the innovation.

Another common approach has researchers apply gender constructs to Facebook, examining how women and men differ in their use of the social networking site. Among other things, they noted that among young people, girls suffered more self-esteem issues through social comparison with others on Facebook than boys did. In their Facebook profiles teens also show a slight preference for more masculine traits, with masculinity tied to indicators of psychological well-being.

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