Pod readers are probably hip to the fact that my major gig is as a teacher of science to children in a relatively progressive district on the thoroughly godless terminal moraine that juts out from NY. Given that I spend most of my day dealing with the minority of students who actually do well in such a setting (read: Honors and AP-level), tonight my students were featured in the district science fair.
While they all did their very best, one project stuck out as particularly noteworthy. The group wanted to investigate which gender would get more friends on Facebook. To go about this, they constructed two dummy profiles, one for a teenaged male and one for a teenaged female. To try to reduce bias, they used photos of city skylines for the profile pictures and gave the profiles relatively comparable personal information. This completed, they set about sending friend requests to every person they could think of, most of whom happened to be in their cohort.
The results of their investigation are not interesting because they answered the question they were asking (the female profile did marginally better), but rather because of a secondary fact:
In the two weeks they did this project, both dummy profiles were accepted as friends by more than 150 other Facebook users. In other words, more than 150 real young people were perfectly content to friend 2 fake young people who had no identifying information other than a fake name and some fake personal information. And a list of their real friends. The last point turns out to be very important. In our discussion in class, many students indicated that the fact that the profiles were friends with people they knew was good enough to win their own friendship.
One wonders how many embarrassing photos, unfortunate status updates and other juicy bits of vital information (phone numbers, email addresses, family members) came along for the ride.
I consider myself to be a pretty techno-savvy guy, but I have to say that I had no idea that it would be so easy to get 150 “digital natives” to associate with a figment of an experimenter’s imagination. It makes the various digital contortions that various criminal enterprises go through to get our identifying information seem positively extravagant. Apparently, the only thing you need to do to get our teenaged population to fork over their most intimate digital personal lives is ask.