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Academic Research in the Age of Facebook

Sites like Mendeley.com and Academia.edu seem eager to turn academic research into more of a Facebook-like experience. If they succeed, academics should begin thinking about how they can make the best use of such tools without falling into a number

by Kerim Friedman On June 3, 2011

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Two articles prompted this post. Jonah Lehrer’s WSJ article on how easy it is for a “wise crowd” to turn into a “dumb herd,” and a NY Times piece about Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. How might this kind of filtering, networking, and pre-digesting of data affect academic research?

Eli Pariser tells us, not too surprisingly, that Google adapts to our needs, showing us stuff it thinks we are more likely to be interested in.

If you’re a foodie, says Jake Hubert, a Google spokesman, “over time, you’ll see more results for apple the fruit not for Apple the computer, and that’s based on your Web history.”

Which is fine, except that

in a effort to single out users for tailored recommendations or advertisements, personalization tends to sort people into categories that may limit their options. It is a system that cocoons users, diminishing the kind of exposure to opposing viewpoints necessary for a healthy democracy, says Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and the author of “You Are Not a Gadget.”

“People tend to get into this echo chamber where more and more of what they see conforms to the idea of who some software thinks they are — like a Nascar dad who likes samurai swords,” Mr. Lanier says. “You start to become more and more like the image of you because that is what you are seeing.”

Perhaps more troubling, from Lehrer’s piece, is a recent study by U of Chicago sociologist James Evans

in which he analyzed 34 million academic articles published in the last 50 years. Though the digitization of journals has made it far easier to find this information—most articles are now accessible online—Mr. Evans found that digitization also coincided with a narrowing of citations. Since search engines rank highly cited articles first, scholars tend to focus on them, which leads to the neglect of more obscure research, even when it is relevant.

These concerns are nothing new. People have been writing about homophily for some time. But the rise of social networking, and its integration into how we read the newspaper or search the web, has made more people aware of the issue.

I know I am not a typical user of these technologies, but not having researched the issue in depth I can only draw from my own experience. What I’ve found is that while my online world is more insulated than ever before from your typical FOX News viewer, I encounter a much broader range of similar-but-different views online than I ever did before. Through blogging, Twitter, and Facebook, I’m much more likely to be exposed to people who share similar fears and concerns, but have a different way of looking at those issues. And since there is a broad similarity, I am much less likely to dismiss those views and much more likely to actively engage with those people than I would if I was forced to read the New York Post every day. In a sense then, homophily actually expands the range of views and opinions I interact with seriously rather than contracting them.

At the same time, however, I find good reasons to worry about the effects of these technologies on academic research. For one thing, Google and Facebook’s algorithms are trade secrets. That means that we don’t really know why we are being shown one search result rather than another. Another concern is that it is all too easy to see homophily as a problem which affects other people, not ourselves. But how can we know for sure? It is easy enough to be swept along by inertia, forgetting that we might need to make a special effort to get out of our narrow comfort range (or what Google/Facebook thinks our comfort range might be) when conducting research.

But more than anything else, I think we are still ignorant to the extent to which our online experience is being shaped by these algorithms. I was surprised to learn, from this interview with Pariser, just how much Facebook social engineers each user’s online interactions:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Now, how in general does Facebook work to keep us on Facebook?

ELI PARISER: For example, they know that if you’re a 30-something woman and you see that your female friends have uploaded pictures of themselves, you’re likely to upload a picture of yourself in the next month. And they know that if you do that, that your male friends are very likely to comment on that picture, and they know that if your male friends comment on that picture, they’re likely to stay on Facebook for months to come.

And so, what Facebook does, according to one person I talked to there, is they actually kind of run that in reverse. They say, oh, this guy looks like he’s kind of getting bored of Facebook. Let’s find one of his friends, show her pictures of her friends that they’ve uploaded so that she uploads a photo so that he comments on it so that he stays on Facebook more.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Diabolical!

Of course, most of us are more likely to use Google Scholar than Facebook when doing academic research, but that is changing, and sites likeMendeley.com and Academia.edu seem eager to turn academic research into more of a Facebook-like experience. We should at least be aware of the issues this might raise if they succeed and begin thinking about how we could make the best use of such tools without falling into some of the traps mentioned above.


This article was originally published on Savage Minds
Photo Credits: Flickr CC tim ellis

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