What Facebook Tells Researchers About Friendship and Race

College freshmen are more likely to make friends with peers they share a dorm room or major with than they are to befriend those from similar racial backgrounds, a study on the Facebook profiles of first-year students found.

A paper on the study, which will be published next week in the American Journal of Sociology, was conducted by researchers at Harvard University and the University of California at Los Angeles. They tracked the online profiles of a class of 1,640 students at an unnamed university to see how they chose their friends. Although the researchers did not identify the institution, they said they chose a selective college where the admitted students represent a wide array of geographic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and are not likely to spend so much time with high school friends.

Although sociologists have long believed students are drawn together by race, the study suggests they are much more likely to become friends with people they see more often or those who make friendly overtures. “There is a high degree of racial homogeneity in friendship networks, but a lot of it is generated by other ways in which friendships are formed,” said Andreas Wimmer, a professor of sociology at UCLA who led the study.

According to the paper, students were also two and-a-half times more likely to befriend peers from the same state and up to two times more likely to bond over attending an elite prep school than they were to form friendships with people who just shared their racial background. “Race is important in the end,” said Kevin Lewis, a Harvard graduate student who is one of the paper’s authors, “but it’s nowhere near as important as we thought.”

After getting approval from Facebook and the university, researchers collected data on everything from the students’ race and gender to their hometowns and musical taste. Researchers also looked closely at whom students appeared with in photos, and used data on the “tagged” pictures of 736 students to identify real-life friendships. The report did not focus on Facebook “friends” because those relationships tend to be impersonal and exclusively online, Mr. Wimmer said.

Facebook “is a wonderful source of information that goes well beyond what you can find in standard surveys,” Mr. Wimmer said. “People put up a lot of information about themselves on their Facebook page.”

Facebook gave the research team an account on the university network that allowed them to access the public profiles of all students at the university. Though happy with the wealth of information they received, Mr. Lewis said, the team walked a “difficult line” between collecting data and respecting the privacy of students, who did not know their information was being used for the study. “On the one hand, you have privacy concerns,” he said. “On the other hand, you have an amazing opportunity for social science.”

According to Mr. Wimmer, researchers were also concerned that the data may have been influenced by the students’ attempts to change their identities online. Students wanting to make themselves look popular, for instance, might have tagged themselves more frequently in pictures with their popular peers. “There might be a bias,” Mr. Wimmer said, but that can be a problem with traditional surveys as well.

Although the paper being published next week will focus on just the students’ freshman year, researchers tracked students through their senior years and are looking for new ways to analyze the information. “It’s important to make good use of that data,” Mr. Lewis said. The slew of privacy settings that Facebook has introduced since the researchers began their work in 2006, however, will make it difficult to replicate the experiment, he said.

Mr. Lewis said Facebook allowed researchers to delve much deeper into student friendships than they could with traditional surveys.
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