February 3, 2012

Why most Facebook users get more than they give

Part 1: Introduction

In June 2011 we released a report on Social Networking Sites and Our Lives [1]. In that report we addressed common concerns that people have about the use of the internet and about social networking sites in particular, as they relate to the quality of people’s relationships and their level of community involvement. Our report was based on a nationally representative phone survey of 2,255 American adults who were surveyed between October 20 and November 28, 2010. That sample included 468 non-internet users, and 975 users of social network sites (SNS) such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

From that survey, we reported on the rapid rise of SNS since 2008 and the intensive, everyday use of SNS. In our analysis one site stood out for its popularity and potential impact. Compared with non-internet users, other internet users, and even users of other SNS, frequent users of Facebook were more likely to exhibit higher levels of social trust, greater political engagement, more close relationships, and a higher level and breadth of social support. We were surprised and intrigued by these findings.

In this report we build on that earlier work with the addition of a new and unique methodological approach. We partnered with Facebook to provide more nuance to our analysis. With the permission of a sub-sample of participants form our national survey, we worked with Facebook to match individual responses from the survey with computer logs of how those same people used Facebook services over a one-month (28-day) period that overlapped with the time our survey was in the field (November 1-28, 2010). A total of 269 people in our survey from the 977 who were Facebook users granted permission for Facebook to share their data so that it could be matched with their survey responses.

This new approach allows us to explore our earlier findings about people’s engagement and relationships in more detail and with a greater range of variables about Facebook use than we could accomplish with a survey alone.

Facebook users who granted us access to their Facebook data look very similar to the overall adult population of American Facebook users

When we compare key demographic characteristics of those who agreed to share their Facebook data with the Facebook users in our original national phone survey, we found few differences. The average Facebook user in our phone survey was 44 years old, as was the average person who agreed to let us explore their online data. The average Facebook user in our phone sample has at least some college education, as does the average person who shared their Facebook data – about 15 years of formal education.

The only major demographic where we found a statistical difference between the survey sample and the sample who allowed us to explore their data related to gender. In this sample, 48% of participants are male. That is higher than the male representation on Facebook in our phone survey, which was 40%.