In his 2000 book, "Bowling Alone," Robert Putnam argues that Americans have grown increasingly disconnected from their friends and family, and that technology—particularly television—is to blame. Since then, social psychologists have engaged in heated arguments about the role of technology in our everyday lives.
"Bowling Alone" was published well before the advent of online social networking, and Facebook aims to reduce that very isolation Putnam laments by facilitating sharing with the people we care the most about.
So how well are we doing? A group of Facebook's data scientists and I decided to measure social well-being on Facebook to find out. We discovered that the more people use Facebook, the better they feel and that those who share and communicate the most with their friends feel even better.
How We Measured Well-Being
Our first step in this research was to determine how to measure well-being. Thankfully, social psychologists have perfected this over decades, carefully refining survey questions that tap people's innermost feelings of connectedness.
We chose common types of surveys measuring two kinds of social capital: 1) "bonding social capital," the emotional support we receive from our closest friends, and 2) "bridging social capital," the new information we get from a diverse set of weaker acquaintances—think of these like a friend-of-a-friend who tells you about a job. We also measured "loneliness," the difference between desired and actual social interactions.
Each concept was measured with a set of about 10 questions, which, with a little statistics magic to account for individual bias, form a consistent score for each person.
Last summer, approximately 1200 people on Facebook from English-speaking countries around the world were recruited through Facebook Ads to take a survey of these well-being questions. A computer script matched the survey responses with logged site activity data for the two months prior—such as the number of clicks on News Feed stories, number of friends and number of Wall posts received—and then we analyzed the anonymized data. We looked for wide-scale patterns of activity that correlated with higher well-being scores.
The results were clear: The more people use Facebook, the better they feel. They have higher levels of both kinds of social capital, and feel less lonely. This holds across age, gender, country, romantic relationship status, and even self-esteem and happiness (two additional factors measured in the survey).
Sharers Versus Consumers
But what are people actually doing on Facebook that accounts for their greater well-being? To answer that question, we next looked at two kinds of activities: "directly sharing" with individual friends by sending messages, writing on Walls, "liking" content and even tagging each other in photos versus more "passive consumption" of social news, such as clicking on News Feed stories, reading friends' status updates and browsing photos.
Direct sharing was linked to better well-being while passive consumption was not. Regardless of how much time people in the study spent on Facebook, how many friends they had, and how many News Feed stories they read, those directly interacting with their friends scored higher levels of well-being.
Even in this tightly controlled study we can't tell if sharing increases well-being, or if better-connected people share more, or both. But by repeating this study over time, we can tease out the causal direction, and that's exactly what we're planning to do next. About twice a year, we'll survey the original participants again to measure changes in their well-being scores and site activity. With each new wave, we can better control for how well-connected people felt in previous rounds, and then see how Facebook use caused changes in well-being, over and above their initial levels.
Watch for future updates as later waves of the study are completed. In the meantime, you can read the whole story in an article we presented earlier this week at the ACM SIGCHI conference, a leading human-computer interaction research event.
Moira, an intern on Facebook's data team and a Ph.D. student in human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, prefers bowling with lots of friends.