Article Critique #3

Note:  This is a required assignment for a course (CEP 900) at Michigan State University.  The article reviewed below was assigned by the instructor. 

Tufekci, Zeynep (2010). Who Acquires Friends Through Social Media and Why? “Rich Get Richer” versus “Seek and Ye Shall Find.”  In Proceedings of the 4th International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM, 2010).

Total word count = 1810 (Questions are 489 words).

A.        Theoretical Perspective

1.      Critique the author’s conceptual framework. (NOTE: This means the conceptual logic the authors use to introduce their study. Usually starting broad and narrowing down to something specific).

Tufekci summarizes two prior models of examining the acquisition of online friendships - a “rich get richer” model and a “social compensation” model, to contrast with her own “seek and ye shall find” model.  The “rich get richer” model stipulates that existing offline social skills will translate into online friendships, and therefore groups which typically have more friendships offline will be the main beneficiaries of online relationships.  Such a model would then predict that women and whites would have the largest quantity of online friends, because of correlations in the offline world.  This is contrasted with a “social compensation” model, which posits the anonymity of online interactions would allow lonely people an opportunity to establish online relationships.  Therefore, it would predict that online relationships would be inversely correlated to real-world relationships.  Tufekci suggests the need for testing a new model arguing that the beliefs of the individual are a better predictor for quantity of online relationships.  Each of these models assumes online interaction and has the quantity of friendships as a dependent variable, the difference is the mediating factor.  Tufekci’s contrasting of these three competing explanations sets up her study well for a reasonable comparison of these competing mediators.

2.      Comment on the need for this study and its importance. (NOTE: What do the authors say about why this study is needed? Is it compelling? Non-existent? Other?

Tufekci derives the need for this study from two areas.  She identifies that there is an ongoing debate in both popular media and academia over the quality, nature, and beneficiaries of online friendships.  Tufekci also notes that ninety percent of millennials have adopted social media as a method of online interaction – implying that online interactions will constitute a new domain of social interaction that will continue be ubiquitous.  This social omnipresence of online interactions means that they will take on increasingly prevalent role in people’s social relationships – it also inherently negates the social compensation model.  Tufekci leaves unsaid the importance of social connections for the well-being of individuals as well as the value of social networks in matters of economic and social equity.

3.      How effectively does the author tie the study to relevant theory and prior research? (Do they cover the right literature? Anything missing? Anything not needed?  How comprehensive? Tied to their conceptual framework?

Tufekci’s review of the literature is largely dedicated to identifying, and to a lesser degree correcting, the assumptions in the debate about online friendships.  She points to early assumptions that online interactions were the realm of socially disadvantaged users but then quickly pivots to the changes in internet usage.  It is these changes such as decreased anonymity, decreased prevalence of text-only interactions, increased adoption of social media amongst millennials, and the multi-ethnic composition of internet users which further buttress her case that previous models may not be predictive of who gains friends online.  The review of earlier research would have benefitted from a brief exploration of whether online friendships yield any of the benefits of offline friendships.  Since the proportion of online users gaining offline friendships is presumed by the author to be small, it would be helpful in further understanding the need for and implications of this research.

4.      Evaluate the clarity and appropriateness of the research questions or hypotheses. (NOTE: Either their explicit or implied questions. Appropriateness can take many forms, but especially its’ connection to 1-3 above)

Tufekci states that this study asks “a simple, direct question: what is the impact of the person’s belief about the possibility of online friendship on actual relationship formation through social media?” (Tufekci, 2010).  Tufekci then adds a secondary question about who gains relationships among those who do not perceive the value of online friendships, and is their quantity of friends predicted by the rich get richer model?  These research questions fit squarely within the previously established conceptual framework which clarified the difference between these two mediating factors.  Framing the research question in this way is not only logical but allows for the possibility of both models offering a degree of predictive value – and the potential for a much more nuanced (and hence precise) understanding of the nature of online friendship acquisition.

B. Research Design and Analysis

1.      Critique the appropriateness and adequacy of the study’s design in relation to the research questions or hypotheses. (NOTE: Try to name a design — pre-post; longitudinal, quasi-experimental; experimental; ethnographic; qualitative (which kind?); etc. Then try to talk about if that design is or is not well-suited to answer the type of research questions that were stated.

Tufekci’s descriptive and cross-sectional design study utilizes a survey with quantitative and qualitative components to establish correlations between beliefs, demographic factors, and social skills and online friendships.  These presumably mediating factors are then examined to test their predictive value in understanding the acquisition of online friendships.  There is a clear connection between the hypotheses and the methodology since both hypotheses aim to predict the quantity of online friendships in a population.  Therefore, it stands to reason that counting these relationships and contrasting them with their beliefs is a fair test.

2.      Critique the adequacy of the study’s sampling methods (e.g., choice of participants) and their implications for generalizability.

A strength of Tufekci’s study lies in the degree to which the most important aspects of her sample population match her target population – namely millennials.  In the rationalization for the study Tufekci identifies the 90% adoption rate of social networking sites as a key feature of modern online interactions and the population of this study had an identical social media adoption rate.  Tufekci is careful to point out that the population of the study is nearly indistinguishable from the population of the university where the study was conducted, however this population also limits the generalizability of the study’s findings.  University students can be assumed to be more educated than the population and since education offers numerous opportunities for social interaction, may also have more social skill.  Additionally, when compared to the general population of millennials Tufekci’s sample contains a higher portion of Asians and a lesser portion of Hispanics than a similar non-university sample would contain.  While this critique is non-unique to this study, it may be relevant since Tufekci identifies race as a factor in online socializing.

3.      Critique the adequacy of the study’s procedures and materials (e.g., interventions, interview protocols, data collection procedures). (NOTE: Sometimes it’s helpful to think of “procedures” as all the steps taken to get to the point of data analysis. Example: obtained consent; randomly sampled, filled out questionnaire, etc.)

Not much is known, based upon this conference paper, about the procedures Tufekci used in conducting the survey, nor are the research materials disclosed.  Readers are left to presume that consent was obtained and that the survey was conducted in conjunction with an unnamed university course.  These omissions, most likely made for brevity, are reasons to encourage interested parties to seek a more comprehensive account of the methods. 

4.      Critique the appropriateness and quality (e.g., reliability, validity) of the measures used. (NOTES: Google reliability and validity. To what extent do the authors discuss these issues and what implications does this have for their study?)

Tufekci is careful to delineate between the diverse uses of the internet and for the degree of socialization that is afforded by each use.  She will later put these to good use in her logistic regression and control for these potentially confounding variables.  Tufekci does cite the single question used to quantify offline sociality which asks the number of friends that are contacted by the subject each week.  For the purposes of this study, which aims to contrast offline and online sociality, this is a major variable to leave exclusively to a single self-reported question.  Subjects for a variety of reasons may misreport or not even have a strong sense of their actual number of social contacts in a given week.  At the very least, contrasting this estimate with other external research would have improved the value of this essential variable.  Since much of the value of a cross-sectional design study relies upon the similarities between groups, the worthiness of much of the subsequent analysis in this study depends upon the reader’s faith in the quality of answers to this single question.

5.      Critique the adequacy of the study’s data analyses. For example: Have important statistical assumptions been met? Are the analyses appropriate for the study’s design? Are the analyses appropriate for the data collected? (NOTE: Consider also if the analyses answer the questions being asked)

As this study seeks to identify mediating factors in the acquisition of online friendships, the data analysis methods aim to isolate the predictive effect of each potential factor.  Tufekci utilizes logistic regression to statistically isolate the effect of each factor.  Since Tufekci’s hypothesis is that belief is the strongest predictive factor, she starts by demonstrating that there is no significant difference between those answering “no” or “yes” to the survey question about the possibility of online friendships.  Appropriately, she then demonstrates that removing belief, internet use, and social media use as factors excludes gender and race (with one exception) as reliable predictors of online friendships.  The remaining factors are then added to the regression test to demonstrate their effects prior to the belief question in the last model.  This measure gives the reader a high degree of confidence in the relative isolation of each predictive factor, because the effects of each factor can be easily seen and compared.  For the qualitative components of the survey, Tufekci describes the emergent categories of responses and bolsters her analysis with exemplars.

C. Interpretation and Implications of Results

1.      Critique the author’s discussion of the methodological and/or conceptual limitations of the results. (NOTE: Just like we did in class)

Tufekci identifies the characteristics of the college population sample as the chief limitation of her study.  This reader could not disagree more.  While the sample does limit the generalizability to older cohorts, the main cohort of interest is millennials for which this sample is a closer match.  Instead, a more glaring limitation is the unreliability of the actual number of real-world friends that each participant purported to maintain.  Since we can’t know if the number of friends reported is correct – the nature of the logistic regression analysis will disguise this unknown.  This is of importance since the “rich get richer” model which Tufekci seeks to contrast with her own, relies on this data point as its chief predictive factor.

2.      How consistent and comprehensive are the author’s conclusions with the reported results? (NOTE: Do they over-state or understate their findings? Does their conclusions “go beyond the data.” Have they not talked about something they should have?)

Tufekci is careful to describe belief in online friend acquisition as a partial self-fulfilling prophecy.  She notes that the nature of her cross-sectional study cannot establish a direction for causality and that it is possible that failure to have acquired friends online may result in the existing belief and therefore establish the correlation in the opposite direction.  While the seek and ye shall find model’s prediction that belief in online friend acquisition will result in a 52% increase in likelihood of acquiring new friends could lead some to make broader claims– Tufekci is wise to stick to a much more limited claim.  Her formulation of a ‘partial’ self-seeking prophecy is much more appropriate.

3.      How well did the author relate the results to the study’s theoretical base? (NOTE: The theoretical base (conceptual framework + literature review) were established in the introduction. Do they return to this framework and talk about how their data fits — or doesn’t — within this framework?)

Tufekci spends much of her discussion relating her findings back to the theoretical models she sought to compare at the outset of the study.  This goes a long way in strengthening the argument that belief is the major determinant in online friend acquisition.  Specifically, Tufekci contrasts the negligible quantitative impact that numbers of real-world friends seem to have upon acquisition (the rich get richer model) with the statistically significant increase correlated to belief in online friend acquisition (seek and ye shall find).  The social compensation model was largely dismissed due to increased adoption rates of social media, however Tufekci returns to that model to note that there was limited support to be found exclusively in the qualitative data.  In returning to these factors, Tufekci comprehensively relates her research to theory.

4.      In your view, what is the significance of the study, and what are its primary implications for theory, future research, and practice? (Remember: Be specific)

Tufekci rightly concludes that this research has implications for individuals, organizations, and the media when communicating about the nature of online friendships.  A negative set of beliefs in the potential of online relationships can result in decreased likelihood of acquisition.  Even if the lack of belief in online friendship acquisition is due to failed attempts, it is reasonable to believe that it is bi-directional and changing beliefs is likely to result in increased relationship quantity.  Research in online friend acquisition could and should be extended into the national conversation of our crisis in loneliness which has featured prominently in the media recently.  Lastly, Tufekci’s finding that African Americans are more likely to acquire online friends points to an area worthy of further examination.