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We Don't Learn from Our Facebook Friends

Posted by Josh Rothman  January 11, 2012 03:14 PM

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One of the great things about our new, socially networked world is that it expands out tastes -- supposedly. In theory, seeing what our friends like should help us discover new music, movies, and books. In reality, it doesn't work that way: A new study from Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society shows that the opposite is true. According to the sociologists Kevin Lewis, Marco Gonzalez, and Jason Kaufman, our online friends' tastes don't have much of an effect on us; in fact, we might be using their tastes to figure out what not to like. ("Social selection and peer influence in an online social network" appears in this month's Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.)

Lewis, Gonzalez, and Kaufman tracked the public Facebook profiles of about 1,400 college students from a single, unnamed college for a four-year period. They found that, on the whole, friends weren't influenced by other friends' tastes. Tastes in music, movies, and films weren't especially "contagious." The exceptions were classical music and jazz: If you made friends with a classical music or jazz fan, you were more likely to start "liking" that sort of music, too -- probably, the researchers suggest, because having a taste for classical or jazz is a "high-status cultural signal."

The best part of the study has to do with students who liked alternative or indie music: Their tastes tended to diverge from the tastes of their friends over time. "Students whose friends list tastes in the 'indie/alt' music cluster are significantly likely to discard these tastes in the future—an instance of peer influence operating in the opposite direction" from what you'd normally predict. Indie kids can use Facebook to find out what's too popular, and then "symbolically distance themselves" from their too-mainstream peers. It's too bad there isn't a "Don't Like" button. [Via ReadWriteWeb.]

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