Friday, August 14, 2009

Media coverage of new technologies: Some thoughts on the Facebook and jealousy study

Some academic studies get picked up by the popular press, but most do not. Unfortunately – and probably because it makes for more exciting headlines – the ones that are more likely to be covered seem to be those that report negative outcomes associated with our use of technology. For instance, the original research by Kraut et al. was reported widely (“Sad, Lonely World Discovered in Cyberspace”) but follow-up studies that found these negative outcomes dissipated over time received far less attention. More recently, a study that suggested Facebook use was associated with lower academic achievement was widely (and incorrectly) reported in multiple news outlets, prompting a response in the online journal First Monday.

We are seeing a similar process unfold now, in regards to a brief (4-page) write-up of an academic study examining jealously and Facebook use titled, "More Information than You Ever Wanted: Does Facebook Bring Out the Green-Eyed Monster of Jealousy?" (by Muise, Christofides and Desmarais) which available from the publisher's website. The LA Times, for instance, warns us that “Facebook could be ruining your relationship and driving you toward compulsively jealous behavior” and that “Facebook use may be fueling wild flights of jealous investigation.” I thought it important to say a few things about what the study does and does not do.

First of all, the study is reported as a “rapid communication” and thus does not offer details that may help readers contextualize the findings. The article focuses on a variable called “Facebook jealousy” but doesn’t include all the survey questions that were used to create this variable. Thus it is unclear what it is really measuring. Likewise, a full regression table isn’t included, which makes it difficult to assess the findings. Something can have a “significant” effect on something else, but that doesn’t mean it is meaningful. So this piece should be seen as a preliminary step prompting future research as opposed to providing a definitive, conclusive model for understanding jealousy and SNS information.

The researchers use a regression analysis to examine the effect of variables, such as gender, on their outcome variable, which is Facebook jealousy. Because they used survey data from one point in time, this analysis can’t really say anything about causality – a point that is not clear in the popular press coverage. In a regression, we use the term “predict” when talking about the effect of one variable on another, but this is not equivalent to the common understanding of ‘prediction,’ which implies a statement about something that will happen in the future. In colloquial terms, prediction implies knowledge of a causal relationship, but when describing a regression it just means that one scores on one variable (such as gender) are related to scores on another (such as jealousy).

The study finds that the most important variables for predicting “Facebook jealousy” are gender and trait jealousy; together these two variables accounted for 46% of the variance in the dependent variable (Facebook jealousy). What this means is that the more jealous someone is (overall, meaning in the “real world”), the more likely it is that they will report doing things like monitoring their partner’s behavior on Facebook. This doesn’t seem all that surprising or news-worthy to me, but rather just another example of the way in which our online and offline selves and behaviors are closely intertwined. The researchers also examine the extent to which time spent on Facebook predicts higher Facebook jealousy scores, and found that there was a significant relationship such that 2% of the variance in the dependent variable was associated with time on Facebook. 2% is a pretty small contribution. It makes sense that people who spend more time on the site would be more likely to encounter information that triggers previously existing tendencies toward jealousy and that those who were already motivated to track the activities of their partner might spend more time on the site. What this study cannot claim is that Facebook makes people more jealous. Rather, it seems that Facebook is another outlet for engaging in specific kinds of behavior that are associated with jealousy in other contexts.

The authors point out, and I agree, that more research needs to be done to really understand the ways in which information found in Facebook may contribute to feelings of jealousy. What I do not agree with is the idea that Facebook constitutes a “fundamental shift” in the ways that jealousy functions within a relationship. The authors write: “In the past, flirty gestures of interest or signs of subtle disregard remained entirely within a person’s own control, and partners in close relationships were most often not subjected to the daily scrutiny of their exchanges with members of their social circle.” A substantial body of research suggests that non-verbal communication is not always within our control, and that leakage of information often occurs. This is why we pay more attention to non-verbal information, like eye contact, than to verbal information when forming impressions and assessing statements by others (although non-verbal cues aren’t always accurate, we tend to privilege them). In both online and offline settings, we may try to send one signal but actually communicate another, and those who are looking for evidence of straying interest will find plenty to ruminate over, whether it be a boyfriend’s new Facebook Friend, an offhand comment by a mutual friend, or a seemingly shifty glance or wandering eye. In short, this is another example of the process by which we use new technologies to do things we’ve always done.

It's unlikely to happen, but I would like to see equal media attention for research that explores the positive outcomes of SNS use. For instance, the most recent issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication alone includes several pieces that describe and evidence positive outcomes of SNS use; I’d love to see equal attention paid to research like the following:

Young People, Online Networks, and Social Inclusion by Tanya Notley

Old Communication, New Literacies: Social Network Sites as Social Learning Resources by Christine Greenhow, Beth Robelia

Is There Social Capital in a Social Network Site?: Facebook Use and College Students' Life Satisfaction, Trust, and Participation by Sebastián Valenzuela, Namsu Park, Kerk F. Kee