A large-scale study of Facebook data sheds new light on the ties between Americans — and how those relationships, in turn, shape economic outcomes.
A research team led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty published the results today in two articles in the journal Nature, examining how social connections lead to economic opportunities. The researchers examined data on 21 billion friendships on Facebook, collected from 72.2 million American Facebook users between the ages of 25 and 44 who provided their zip code.
The first article looks at those results through the lens of “economic connectedness” – basically how close people from different economic classes are to each other. The researchers found that people with lower incomes were more likely to improve their financial situation over time if they were connected with people with higher incomes.
“The proportion of high-SES friends among low-SES individuals – what we call economic connectedness – is one of the strongest predictors of upward income mobility identified to date,” the researcher writes. “If children with low-SES parents were to grow up in provinces with an economic affiliation comparable to that of the average child with high-SES parents, their adult income would increase by an average of 20%.”
Income mobility research is not just for useless academic interest. As the researchers point out, greater knowledge about the social bonds that bind communities together and how they lead to different economic outcomes could aid interventions designed to help low-income communities improve and provide them with more financial opportunities.
The second article delves into those connections themselves and how they come about. The Harvard team found that connections between high- and low-income people were often forged through structured social organizations, such as schools and religious groups. Still, the researchers found that even with social exposure to other income levels, people were still more likely to forge social bonds with other people who share their socioeconomic status.
The research is interesting and could have implications, given the growing wealth gap in the US. Higher income groups continue to build wealth at an accelerating pace, pushing the have-nots even further behind. And the top 5% of the richest American families are growing the fastest of all.
“Differences in economic affiliation may explain 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 for researchers interested in studying myriad aspects of human behavior and social structures. Historically, Facebook parent company Meta has had a somewhat fraught relationship with researchers, particularly those interested in how the social network itself shapes society, but there are signs that Meta is warming to more outside research.
Meta also remains vulnerable to potential misuse of the vast amount of personal data it monetizes. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, even four years later, the company still has a reputation for lax data management. Still, the company appears to be aware that bolstering research for social wellbeing could help offset its long history of sowing social discord.
“This work is an important contribution to our understanding of the relationship between social connections and economic opportunity,” Meta wrote in a blog post about the study. “And it shows how Meta’s data can be used for socially important research when shared responsibly and in a way that protects people’s privacy.”
The data is also available through a new interactive site, the ‘Atlas of Social Capital’.
This post Study of Facebook friendships examines how economic mobility works in the US – TechCrunch
was original published at “https://techcrunch.com/2022/08/01/facebook-meta-economic-mobility-nature-study/”