HP Facebook Research: “Rhythms of social interaction”

Researchers at Hewlett-Packard have released a brief paper outlining some Facebook research entitled “Rhythms of social interaction: messaging within a massive online network.” They worked with a huge data sets: “headers of 362 million messages exchanged by 4.2 million users of Facebook…during a 26 month interval.” Wow! It’s a good paper and it’s relatively short (the main body is only 13 pages) – read it.

One finding of this research is, as the title suggests, the discovery of several consistent patterns of use on a daily or weekly basis. The patterns discovered by these researchers will not be a surprise to anyone who has worked with college students, particularly those in closest contact with them such as residence life staff. As a ResNet researcher, I would like to point out to readers that this kind of data is available at nearly every institution. If you want an extremely solid, reliable method of analyzing or discovering some of the patterns of your on-campus residents, ask your networking folks to analyze the network traffic in the residence halls. As the ResNet Coordinator at a medium-sized institution, I had direct access to this data and the patterns were clear. For example, it was pretty clear that many residents didn’t go to bed until between 2:00 and 4:00 am. That’s no surprise but the point is that I had data that supported that assertion. I don’t know of anyone who has really used that kind of data but I suspect there are a significant amount of data and implications for someone motivated and clever enough to analyze it.

Other interesting findings in this research:

  • The median number of “friends” was 144, a figure very much in line with previous research conducted by others. This is also close to the “magic number” of 150, a number sometimes cited as the maximum number of friends one can have (a number that was “discovered” in primate research).
  • Nearly half (41.6%) of the messages sent are to users in a school different from the user sending the message, a finding that supports the assertion that Facebook plays a larger role in maintaining previously-established social ties than in forming new ones.
  • An analysis of message and poke traffic shows that there appear to be two main patterns of use: Mid-Sunday through mid-Friday (weekdays) and mid-Friday through mid-Sunday (the weekend).
  • A comparison of the messaging habits of college students with those of employees in a large corporation shows that both groups exhibit different usage patterns on the weekend (and both groups define the “weekend” differently as noted above). But more importantly is that college students’ weekend pattern of usage still includes high usage of (Facebook) messaging whereas the corporate employees’ pattern does not. Or, as the researchers put it, “college students have a schedule in which they integrate computer use into most of their waking hours.”

There are, of course, other interesting findings in this paper. It is gratifying that there are no surprises in this paper. So far, we seem to be on the right track so far with respect to understanding students’ use of this tool. If only we could figure out how *we* should be using this tool…

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