Each day about 1,700 juniors at an East Coast college log on to Facebook.com to accumulate "friends," compare movie preferences, share videos and exchange cybercocktails and kisses. Unwittingly, these students have become the subjects of academic research.
To study how personal tastes, habits and values affect the formation of social relationships (and how social relationships affect tastes, habits and values), a team of researchers from Harvard and the University of California at Los Angeles is monitoring the Facebook profiles of an entire class of students at one college, which they declined to name for privacy reasons.
"One of the holy grails of social science is the degree to which taste determines friendship, or to which friendship determines taste," said Jason Kaufman, an associate professor of sociology at Harvard University and a member of the research team. "Do birds of a feather flock together, or do you become more like your friends?"
In other words, Facebook - where users rate one another as "hot or not," play games like "Pirates vs. Ninjas" and throw virtual sheep at one another - is helping scholars explore fundamental social science questions.
"We're on the cusp of a new way of doing social science," said Nicholas Christakis, a Harvard sociology professor who is also part of the research. "Our predecessors could only dream of the kind of data we now have."
Facebook's network of 58 million active users and its status as the sixth-most-trafficked Web site in the United States have made it an irresistible subject for many types of academic research. Scholars at Carnegie Mellon used the site to look at privacy issues. Researchers at the University of Colorado analyzed how Facebook instantly disseminated details about the Virginia Tech shootings in April.
But it is Facebook's role as a petri dish for the social sciences - sociology, psychology and political science - that particularly excites some scholars, because the site lets them examine how people, especially young people, are connected to one another, something few data sets offer, the scholars say.
Social scientists at Indiana University, Northwestern, Penn State, Tufts, the University of Texas and other institutions are mining Facebook to test traditional theories in their fields about relationships, identity, self-esteem, popularity, collective action, race and political engagement.
Much of the research is continuing and has not been published, so findings are preliminary. In a few studies, the Facebook users do not know they are being examined. A Facebook spokeswoman says the site has no policy prohibiting scholars from studying profiles of users who have not activated certain privacy settings.
Eliot R. Smith, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, and a colleague received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study how people meet and learn more about potential romantic partners.
S. Shyam Sundar, a professor and founder of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State, has led students in several Facebook studies. Researchers learned that while people perceive someone who has a high number of friends as popular, attractive and self-confident, people who accumulate "too many" friends (about 800 or more) are seen as insecure.
But some scholars point out that Facebook is not representative of the ethnicity, educational background or income of the population at large, and its membership is self-selecting.
Most researchers acknowledge these limits, yet they are still eager to plumb the site's vast amount of data.