Facebook has a Data Science Team. And here is what they do:
Eytan Bakshy […] wanted to learn whether our actions on Facebook are mainly influenced by those of our close friends, who are likely to have similar tastes. […] So he messed with how Facebook operated for a quarter of a billion users. Over a seven-week period, the 76 million links that those users shared with each other were logged. Then, on 219 million randomly chosen occasions, Facebook prevented someone from seeing a link shared by a friend. Hiding links this way created a control group so that Bakshy could assess how often people end up promoting the same links because they have similar information sources and interests [link to source at Technology Review].
It must be great (and a great challenge) to have access to all the data Facebook and use it to answer questions that are relevant not only for the immediate business objectives of the company. In the words of the Data Science Team leader:
“The biggest challenges Facebook has to solve are the same challenges that social science has.” Those challenges include understanding why some ideas or fashions spread from a few individuals to become universal and others don’t, or to what extent a person’s future actions are a product of past communication with friends.
Cool! These statements might make for a good discussion about the ethics of doing social science research inside and outside academica as well.