The Social Network Becomes a Social Science Subject

Hi everyone, and welcome to the third edition of Plaintext. I hope that this newsletter has become one more good reason to look forward to Friday. (I now look forward to Friday because it means the newsletter is done and I don’t have to worry about the next one until … Sunday?) If you are reading this on the web and are wondering why it isn’t in your inbox, fix that by subscribing to WIRED at a discount so steep you’ll need to depressurize afterwards. You’ll get the print version, unlimited web, and of course, this newsletter.

The Plain View

Last weekend I attended an event called Social Science Foo Camp, an “unconference” where attendees spontaneously schedule discussion sessions to create a lively agenda. The venue was Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. One of the more interesting sessions I attended concerned a project called Social Science One.

Social Science One is an effort to get the Holy Grail of data sets into the hands of private researchers. That Holy Grail is Facebook data. Yep, that same unthinkably massive trove that brought us Cambridge Analytica.

In the Foo Camp session, Stanford Law School’s Nate Persily, cohead of Social Science One, said that after 20 months of negotiations, Facebook was finally releasing the data to researchers. (The researchers had thought all of that would be settled in two months.) A Facebook data scientist who worked on the team dedicated to this project beamed in confirmation. Indeed, the official announcement came a few days later.

It’s an unprecedented drop, involving a data set of 10 trillion numbers. The information centers on URLs shared by Facebook’s billions of users—specifically, the 38 million of these that were shared more than 100 times on Facebook between January 1, 2017, and July 31, 2019. Researchers can isolate URLs by characteristics like whether they were fact-checked or flagged as hate speech, and they can see (in the aggregate) who viewed them, liked them, shared them, or even whether they shared the links without viewing them. “This dataset enables social scientists to study some of the most important questions of our time about the effects of social media on democracy and elections with information to which they have never before had access,” reads the Social Science One press release.

The reason it took so long is that Facebook, quite understandably, wanted to protect the privacy of its users. Simply aggregating the information so that no individual’s activity can be identified wasn’t enough for Facebook, which insisted on also encoding the data via a technology called differential privacy. It’s a great way to protect privacy, but because it works by adding digital noise to the data set to prevent exposure of individuals, the technique limits what research can be done. The Social Science One people think Facebook is excessively cautious. “But I didn’t just get a $5 billion fine from the FTC,” acknowledges Persily, referring to the penalty assessed on Facebook last summer for its privacy sins.

This is a new chapter in the somewhat tortured history of Facebook data research. The company hires top data scientists, sociologists, and statisticians, but their primary job is not to conduct academic research, it’s to use research to improve Facebook’s products and promote growth. These internal researchers sometimes do publish their findings, but after a disastrous 2014 Facebook study that involved showing users negative posts to see if their mood was affected, the company became super cautious about what it shared publicly. So this week’s data drop really is a big step in transparency, especially since there’s some likelihood that the researchers may discover uncomfortable truths about the way Facebook spreads lies and misinformation.

The Foo Camp session was packed with researchers from inside and outside of Facebook, and there was a heady ebullience. You could almost hear the virtual popping of champagne. Finally, the public will get its shot at the treasure trove, the feeling went.

Yet I suspect that the actual users of Facebook might not be so excited. They don’t use the service so they can participate in experiments or contribute to research, and they don’t get to opt out of these studies. While Social Science One touts the benefit to society of slicing and dicing the data to gain insights, no one is benefiting more than the researchers themselves—their papers are going to be awesome! So, at the risk of turning the room against me, I posed the question: “Why should Facebook be turning over its data to outsiders?”

Persily had a compelling answer: “We are now living in a society where the most important data relating to data and communications is locked up in one company.” It’s for the good of everyone, he says, for academics to get their hands on it.

All of this begs another question: Why does Facebook’s mother-of-all-data-sets exist at all? Pending resolution of that matter, I await the conclusions of the Social Science One researchers.

Time Travel

Social Science Foo Camp is a variation of the unconferences that digital media maven Tim O’Reilly has been running since 2003. The ad hoc format has been widely imitated. Here’s an account of a Foo Camp in the aughts, from my 2005 profile of O’Reilly:

Could it be that the Internet—or what O’Reilly calls Web 2.0—is really the successor to the human potential movement? If so, the new Esalen is his increasingly fabled Foo Camp, where 200 or so people—a gamut ranging from’s Jeff Bezos to BitTorrent’s Bram Cohen and random wizards doing VoIP hacks—are invited each year to the underpopulated Sebastopol campus to crash in empty offices or pitch tents in the backyard.

At the Foo Camp in August, O’Reilly opened by asking participants to identify their passions with only three words. After the introductions came a mad rush to a giant poster board to fill up the empty squares with an instant, self-organized agenda. Sessions ranged from Beyond Python to Tele-Operated Humanoid Robotics.

Tim O’Reilly’s three words? Harnessing collective intelligence.

Ask Me One Thing

Nicolas asks, “Do you think Uber Elevate will go anywhere soon?”

Thanks for the question, Nicolas! Uber Elevate, for those whose heads aren’t in the clouds yet, is the ride-sharing company’s term for its aviation-on-demand vision. Basically, flying cars. But safer than helicopters! This white paper explains it, using the example of how quickly one could elevate oneself to San Jose from San Francisco, as compared to the quasi parking lot of Route 101. By the way, the white paper cheats by using color graphics. Oh, Uber.

Look, I loathe traffic jams as much as anyone. But despite assurances from my very smart friends trying to build flying cars that they say will be safe and feasible, personal transportation in general seems expensive and environmentally wasteful compared to mass public transportation, three words that tech billionaires are somehow unable to string together.

I think for the moment, Uber should focus on dealing with its problems right here on the dirt with the rest of us.

You can submit questions to Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

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