The Greater Narrative

Introduction

On the surface, Facebook is a social media and networking platform that allows its users to create a profile, send messages, and perform other social functions. However, by analyzing Facebook’s Social Connectedness Index (SCI), which measures the probability of connectedness between two users from distinct geographic locations, we can gather deeper insights into the socio-cultural and socio-economic implications of the platform. In the pursuit of the connection between social connectedness and economic behaviors, we need to analyze the two most important and illuminating statistics about regional economic differences: unemployment rate and household incomes. Through data provided by the U.S. Department of Labor in tandem with Facebook’s Social Connectedness Index, we discover connectedness’s influence over what are considered dominant identity characteristics and their correlation with individual economic standing.

An analysis of our datasets illustrates correlations between a high Facebook SCI and low unemployment numbers, low unemployment rates, and above-average median household incomes, particularly in the middle region of the United States. The cultural and demographic similarities in these states lead us to believe that identity traits might play a role in explaining this employment phenomenon. In relation to social connectedness, there appears to be an implicit, overarching bias within American culture favoring specific identity characteristics over others, such as extraversion over openness and tolerance.

Place in Literature

The primary literature exploring the Facebook SCI data is mainly written by Michael Bailey et al. In their article directly corresponding to the dataset titled “Social Connectedness: Measurement, Determinants, and Effects,” they argue how social networks shape economic activity.1 In “International Trade and Social Connectedness,” Bailey et al. discuss how social connectedness has evolved into a substitute for trust in the fostering of trade, demonstrating an inherent corporate-serving characteristic.2 In their other article, “The Determinants of Social Connectedness in Europe,” they study the association between social connectedness and demographic characteristics, as well as the relationship between the former and income.3 Some contradictions that exist in the literature include a debate about whether the relationships between economic factors including trade, unemployment, and income and social connectedness are causal or have a correlation. These scholars do generally agree that there is some sort of relationship between the two that is unexplainable by other alternatives.

Allen et al. define the important term social identity gratification, referring to the need for an individual to affirm their social identities.4 In addition, higher social connections were claimed to have led to greater social identification.5 Another researcher discovered how college students and higher social connectedness were linked to higher institutional conformity but lower involvement in ethnic and cultural organizations .6 Overall, these articles agree upon the impact that social connectedness can have on an individual’s identity.

Fraogo’s research explored how social connectedness and networking is a logical progression of capitalism and explores how media bias toward space favors centralization and homogeneity.7 Rentfrow’s article illustrates personality profiles and clusters that correspond with the different regions of the United States.8 These sources assess our research questions concerning dominant identity traits in the United States. The questions remaining about the Facebook SCI data concern the actual relationship it has with these other factors, such as employment, and its role in navigating individual identity in a United States individualistic-dominated culture. The actual characteristics that makeup what is considered a “higher” social status have yet to be explored, as well as social connectedness’s relationship to employment, which is what we explore in this project.

Worthy of the Humanitarian Data Exchange?

The word frequencies of articles produced by Facebook Researcher Manager and creator of the Social Connectedness Index, Michael Bailey, illustrate that Facebook’s usage of this data revolves around its ability to predict and analyzed global economies.9

The focus of the Humanitarian Data Exchange is to increase data usage in the humanitarian sector. Yet, despite providing data based on human interactions, it is not immediately clear how the SCI could be utilized to further humanitarian efforts.

However, through analysis of three journal reports created through the release of the Index by Facebook Research Manager, Michael Bailey, we can better understand the priorities of the data creator and its intended uses. Following the words social and connectedness, more economically-implicit words appear frequently, including trade, product, and economic. The high usage of these words throughout the literature exemplify how Facebook is still able to use their humanitarian-focused data to serve their business goals. Furthermore, Bailey suggests through his team and his research that social connectedness is evolving into a substitute for trade and other contract enforcement processes.10 The connection, therefore, is rendered abundantly clear: inter-connectedness and conversation are the keys to economic activity.

This is evidence of a cultural trend toward the dominant narrative that social connectedness is beginning to equivocate to important values like trust. Diverse identities are pressured to assimilate to such notions, and those without the resources to even have social connectedness are in danger of being left behind.

The Perpetuation of a Dominant Identity

While the majority of counties exist within one standard deviation of both SCI and unemployment, there is a slight correlation among outliers toward a lower unemployment rate with a higher SCI.

According to the research article, “Social Connectedness: Measurement, Determinants, and Effects,” Bailey et al shares that the SCI data can be used to help us “document that social connectedness correlates strongly with social and economic activity across regions,” and “while these correlations should not be seen as identifying causal relationships, they provide starting points for investigating a variety of important questions.”11

By broadening the scope from counties to states, we can see that there is indeed a correlation between high SCI and low unemployment numbers. The states that show the highest SCI all have unemployment numbers that are less than 2,000 and most of them are located in the middle of the country. A possible reason that states in the middle have a higher SCI could be due to the fact that most of them have a smaller population. States that are located in the middle are also further away from the coasts, which are often the hubs for headquarters for many companies. Nonetheless, while this relationship does not necessitate causality, it does have deeper implications related to identity as it is not a coincidence that the states with the highest SCI are all located in Middle America.

The Identities of the Most Connected

Not only are counties with the highest SCIs centered in middle-American, but they are also possess small populations and lower-than-average household incomes compared to counties around the country.
According to their research on personality processes and individual differences, in their article, “Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social, and Health Correlates,” Rentfrow et al. map the psychological topography of the United States.12 As we can see in our SCI county map, it shows the highest quantities of SCI in the middle of America region of the map compared to the East and West coast which show a lower SCI count. 

Rentfrow et al. identify this middle region as “Friendly and Conventional” pointing out the values that most individuals in this region share. They identify this region as having large social conservative values and they explain how this region has higher levels of extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Through their research, Rentfrow et al. were able to conclude that these values and traits helped enable these individuals within this region to portray characteristics that include being sociable, considerate, and traditional. 

The authors also indicate this region features a high number of White individuals in this population that have characteristics, as they describe, with low education, low wealth, and low economic innovation. As we can see on our map, it portrays the household income is much lower in the middle region of America compared to the regions on the East and West coast. To conclude with Rentfrow et al., their analysis indicates that individuals showing these characteristics are less likely to relocate and more likely to stay closer to family and friends. 

Thus, the SCI count being higher in this area shows us that these individuals are more in contact with those close to them compared to individuals in regions where the SCI count is much lower. This map and analysis drawn from Rentfrow et al. help us understand how the individuals in this region interact with each other.

By analyzing states and their SCI, it is evident that these numbers are influenced by demographics. For those familiar with California, it could be predicted that California would fall under the states with a high SCI. However, the average SCI of each state tells a different story, in that California actually falls lower in the spectrum. To make sense of this, we can refer back to the three region clusters determined by Rentfrow et al.14 Based on their research, California is considered a “Relaxed & Creative region.” It is defined by demographics such as college-educated people and non-Whites. Some characteristics that people of this region tend to have are low extraversion and very high openness and tolerance. These traits align with our narrative because the low amount of SCI corresponds to having a low extraversion quality.   

Moreover, there are a disproportionate number of non-White residents in the region which indicates a less uniform identity. The characteristics of high openness are also consistent with our narrative, as we suggest social connectedness correlates to conformity for a dominant culture. Because California is made up of an open-minded population, the SCI numbers can be explained as a challenge to this dominant narrative. In addition, California fits the profile of having a tolerance for cultural diversity and alternative lifestyles. 

Intra-connected versus Interconnected Social Connectedness

The county combinations in the highest percentiles of the SCI data are, not surprisingly, those geographically near each other. Based on this realization, though, how well are people connected within their own communities, and what are the social implications of this?
Histogram plotting the frequency of unemployment rate values of counties with low SCIs
Histogram plotting the frequency of unemployment rate values of counties with high SCIs
Expanding our analysis on intra-county connectedness, we took the top and bottom quartiles of SCIs and plotted them against unemployment rates. Here, we realize that unemployment rates appear to be significantly lower in states with lower intra-social connectedness, areas which have lower SCIs within themselves, than in states with higher inter-social connectedness, states which have higher SCIs amongst other states.
It appears that the higher the distal frequency between a Facebook user and their friend, the lower the unemployment rate. This is highlighted in the research study conducted by Michael Bailey et al, in which they claimed that a larger distance between a Facebook user and friend can indicate socioeconomic factors such as higher incomes, educational levels, and social mobility.13 One can presume this to be the case because the ability to travel is often associated with affluence and wealth. Contrarily, the lower the distal frequency between a Facebook user and their friend, the higher the unemployment rate. 

Our research expands upon this phenomenon in terms of quality and quantity. Although a state like California might have a higher population of people, it does not necessitate a high SCI number. On the other hand, a state like Nebraska might have a lower population, but its SCI level appears to be high. The reason for this is that higher SCI can be assumed to be equivalent to the quality of the connections being made. Many of these high SCI states are regions that are nearby each other and in a sense interconnected while states with lower SCI, like California, might be more intra-connected within themselves. 

Looking further into this, people have more job opportunities when they are making connections outside their respective states. In addition, their identities play a significant role in helping them obtain these connections and consequently employment. Thus, this data suggests that high social connectedness is becoming the new standard for what is considered a quality connection.

Significance

Our project is important because it expands upon Michael Bailey and other contributing scholars’ idea that the SCI data can be used to document the correlation between social connectedness and social and economic activity. To begin our investigation, we first questioned why Facebook, a corporation, had its SCI data categorized under the Humanitarian Data Exchange. Considering Facebook’s corporate reputation, we built off the foundations set by Bailey et al. to explore the narrative surrounding the economics of social connectedness and its effects on the labor force.14  Facebook and many other companies are becoming powerful enough where they are deciding what is the new standard. For instance, in the job market, people who do not have an online profile are at a huge disadvantage compared to those who do.

Being more socially connected can also allow you to learn about different job titles and opportunities. It’s now more common than not that many job opportunities are discovered through friends and those you know. In an attempt to increase their job opportunities, many people are being pressured to assimilate to American dominant notions such as social media engagement and an extrovert communication style. The SCI inherently perpetuates the ideology that being more socially connected is better, which can influence how an individual might try to shape their identity. However, we are limited in the significance on our findings by the transferability of digital connectedness to real-life connectedness. While representative of the larger population, Facebook inherently exists as an alternate reality, therefore, providing distinct psychological outcomes for its users.15

It is important to note, however, that these psychological responses to connectedness could also be considered distinct from socio-economics. Therefore, we find significance in our project’s ability to connect these two worlds. Through this project, we hope that others will come to understand the complexity behind the definition of “connectedness.” While Facebook has theirs, the world may think otherwise, yet it is important to discuss this overlap and how companies like Facebook, who are willing to publicly supply these datasets can act as driving forces toward humanitarian efforts.

Conclusion

There is speculation that although the Facebook SCI is considered a dataset of the Humanitarian Data Exchange, the company is still maintaining their corporate obligations to shareholders within their humanitarian work. From our research, we can conclude that there in fact exists a correlation between SCI and unemployment, and the states in which this relationship is most transparent give us a lot of information on what individual identities and personality characteristics determine a high SCI. Ultimately, we found that these identity traits, which included extraversion and social conservatism, tied to an overarching dominant American narrative in which exhibiting high social connectedness is necessary for an individual to obtain job opportunities and employment. Although this study expands upon the original SCI literature of Michael Bailey et al., there are still more socioeconomic factors to be explored in relation to SCI, as well as this phenomena of business corporations having enough power to influence societal values and standards.

Citations

  1. Bailey, Michael, Rachel Cao, Theresa Kuchler, Johannes Stroebel, and Arlene Wong. “Social Connectedness: Measurement, Determinants, and Effects.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 32, no. 3 (Summer 2018): 259-280. https://doi.org/10.1257/jep.32.3.259.
  2. Bailey, Michael, Abhinav Gupta, Sebastian Hillenbrand, Theresa Kuchler, Robert Richmond, and Johannes Stroebel. “International Trade and Social Connectedness.” National Bureau of Economic Research (April 2020): 1-37. https://doi.org/10.3386/w26960.
  3. Bailey, Michael, Drew Johnston, Theresa Kuchler, Dominic Russel, Bogdan State, and Johannes Stroebel. “The Determinants of Social Connectedness in Europe.” Social Informatics (2020): 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-60975-7_1.
  4. Allen, Kelly A., Tracii Ryan, DeLeon L. Gray, Dennis M. McInerney, and Lea Waters. “Social Media Use and Social Connectedness in Adolescents: The Positives and the Potential Pitfalls.” The Educational and Developmental Psychologist 31, no. 1 (July 2014): 18–31. https://doi.org/10.1017/edp.2014.2.
  5. Lee, Richard M. and Steven B. Robbins. “The Relationship between Social Connectedness and Anxiety, Self-Esteem, and Social Identity.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 45, no. 3 (07, 1998): 338-345. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-0167.45.3.338.
  6. Lyda, James L. “The Relationship between Multiracial Identity Variance, Social Connectedness, Facilitative Support, and Adjustment in Multiracial College Students.” PhD diss., University of Oregon, 2008. https://search.proquest.com/docview/304490127?accountid=14512.
  7. Fragoso, Suely. “GEOGRAPHIC CONNECTEDNESS IN ORKUT: Exploring Relations between Territory and Identity in Social Network Sites.” 9th International Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, 2008, 14. https://doi.org/10.13140/2.1.1422.9766.
  8. Rentfrow, Peter J., Samuel D. Gosling, Markus Jokela, David J. Stillwell, Michal Kosinski, and Jeff Potter (2013). “Divided we stand: Three psychological regions of the United States and their political, economic, social, and health correlates.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 105, no. 6 (2013): 996–1012. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034434.
  9. Bailey et al., “International Trade,” 1-37.
  10. Bailey et al., “Social Connectedness,” 259-280.
  11. Rentfrow et al., “Divided we stand,” 996-1012.
  12. Rentfrow et al., “Divided we stand,” 996-1012.
  13. Bailey et al., “Social Connectedness,” 259-280.
  14. Bailey et al., “Social Connectedness,” 259-280.
  15. Bailey et al., “Social Connectedness,” 259-280.