Facebook friendships study explores how economic mobility works in the US – TechCrunch
A large-scale study of Facebook data sheds new light on the connections between Americans — and how those connections in turn shape economic outcomes.
A research team led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty published the findings today in two journal articles Nature, exploring how social connections lead to economic opportunities. The researchers looked at data from 21 billion Facebook friendships, collected from 72.2 million US-based Facebook users between the ages of 25 and 44 who provided their zip code.
The first article examines these results through the lens of “economic connectedness”—basically, how close people of different economic classes are to each other. The researchers found that low-income people were more likely to improve their financial situation over time if they were in contact with higher-income people.
“The share of high SES friends among low SES people – which we call economic connectedness – is one of the strongest predictors of upward income mobility identified to date,” the researcher writes. “If children of low SES parents were to grow up in counties with comparable economic ties to the average child of high SES parents, their adult earnings would increase by 20% on average.”
Research on income mobility is not just for idle academic interest. As the researchers point out, better understanding of the social ties that hold communities together and how these lead to different economic outcomes can inform interventions designed to help uplift low-income communities and provide them with more opportunities. financial.
The second article dives into these connections themselves and how they are formed. The Harvard team found that bonds between high-income and low-income people were often forged through formal social organizations, such as schools and religious groups. Yet the researchers found that even with social exposure at other income levels, people were still more likely to forge social connections with others who shared their socioeconomic status.
The research is interesting and potentially consequential given the growing wealth gap in the United States. High-income families continue to accumulate wealth at an accelerated rate, leaving the poor even further behind. And the richest 5% of American families are growing their wealth the fastest of all.
“Differences in economic connectivity may explain the well-known relationships between upward income mobility and racial segregation, poverty rates, and inequality,” the researchers write.
With the largest user base of any social platform ever created, Facebook offers a wealth of potential data to researchers interested in studying myriad aspects of human behavior and social structures. Historically, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, has had a somewhat strained relationship with researchers, especially those interested in shedding light on how the social network itself is shaping society, but there are signs that Meta is preparing to more outside research.
Meta also remains sensitive to potential abuse of the vast trove of personal data it monetizes. The company still lives up to a reputation for lax data handling in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, even four years later. Still, the company seems to be aware that empowering research for social good could help offset its long history of sowing social discord.
“This work is a major contribution to our understanding of the relationship between social ties and economic opportunity,” Meta wrote in a blog post about the research. “And it shows how Meta data can be used for societally important research when shared responsibly and in a way that protects people’s privacy.”
The data is also available on a new interactive site called the “Social Capital Atlas”.