WHAT DO PEOPLE DO WITH FACEBOOK? Interview with Adam N. Joinson (Univ. Bath)

Facebook is definitely a popular site, but what do we know about how people use it? Adam N. Joinson (University of Bath) is studying Facebook users to learn more about it and will present some of the findings this morning at CHI 2008. I’ve asked him some questions about his research and here you can find the answers:

Why did you decide to study Facebook users ?
“Over the last 12 months all social networking sites have experienced huge growth, but the growth of Facebook is nothing short of spectacular – in the United Kingdom, users grew by around 500% during 2007, in the US by close to 100%. Facebook is also a good place to study use since it incorporates many different potential uses of social networking sites, including video, messaging, games and other applications.”

Based on your research, what are the purposes and the major gratifications in using Facebook?
“The main use of Facebook is the recreation of social connections between people who had, or still have, a connection in their everyday lives. So, people mainly used Facebook to reconnect with people they went to school with, worked with, or friends they lost touch with. But, the key question is ‘what do people do once they have created this network?’ The results of the research suggest that this can be divided into four main activities – they can use applications within the site to interact with their network, they can browse their friends’ friends and learn more about them, they can join groups and express their identity via shared social experiences, or they can use the site to inform others of their news, and keep up to date with others’ actions.”

How did you study users to understand what they were doing with Facebook?

“The study had two parts. In the first, 137 users were asked what they used Facebook for, what they most enjoyed about using the site, and what uses were most important to them. These responses were then clustered by trained raters. Selected answers from each cluster were then turned into a questionnaire that 241 people completed, and statistical techniques used to identify activities that occured together.”

Did you find any surprising behaviors?
“A number of surprising findings emerged. First, the amount of time people spend on the site is predicted not by their number of friends, but by the amount they interact with the  applications within Facebook. In fact, spending time interacting with applications was associated with having fewer friends on Facebook. Second, the majority of the respondents had changed their privacy settings, but some had made themselves more open, which was motivated by a desire to meet new people – so they made themselves ‘discoverable’. Third, the frequency of visits to the site was motivated by an interest in photographs and in other
people’s news (via their ‘status’ updates). “

How do you think social networking sites should improve? What should they do or not do in the future?
“The issue is what do these sites provide once you have built your network. If they do not provide additional activities or social networking resources, the danger is that they become nothing more than a glorified contacts database. Two uses – photographs and people’s news – came out clearly as possible motivators of repeat visits to the site. If they want to remain central to people’s online lives, social network sites need to find ways to encourage people to use them to not only make contact with others, but also to keep that contact alive.”

© 2008, Il Sole 24 Ore. Web report from CHI 2008.