XVIII.6 November + December 2011
Page: 32
Digital Citation

Understanding science

Bonnie Nardi, Nicole Ellison, Cliff Lampe

Science is a specialized practice. In many cases, it takes years of training to be able to interpret findings and see patterns across multiple studies. Those untrained in a scientific specialty (such as members of the general public) may not understand aspects of the scientific process or the outcomes of scientific investigations. This problem is sometimes compounded by the ways scientific findings are presented by the popular press or the fact that seemingly contradictory findings emerge over time. Scientific findings, even when the preponderance of evidence supports a particular conclusion (as in human-effected climate change), can be characterized by nuance and interpretative accounts that make them difficult for a lay person to evaluate. It’s our responsibility as scientists not only to conduct the best research we can, but to make that research accessible to the general public.

One area that is particularly susceptible to challenges of interpretation and understanding is social science research concerning social media. Most citizens have used social media or encountered a popular press story about sites such as Facebook, so the domain feels more familiar than research on relatively arcane scientific topics such as genomics or quantum field theory. For those who use social media, it is natural to generalize from their own experiences and perceptions, and it may seem that scientific study of such phenomena is unnecessary. It may surprise the public to learn that social media are the focus of legitimate inquiry [1].

As members of the research community studying the social dynamics of new technologies, we have been following the debate around the recently released Coburn Report and thinking about what this discussion suggests about the role of social science today. The Coburn Report, prepared by the staff of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), is entitled “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope” [2]. Our research was mentioned in the Report along with the research of many other recipients of National Science Foundation funding. Some of us were directly named, and others identified through mention of funded research projects in footnoted citations.

The Report’s stated goal is to question funding decisions and procedures at the NSF in order to highlight what the authors regard as wasteful spending. Addressed to U.S. taxpayers, the Report states that “a significant percentage of your money is going to [the NSF for] what most Americans will consider fraud, waste and abuse” [3]. This statement constitutes a serious accusation. If it were true, the research activity it points to would involve unethical and possibly illegal actions on the part of the researchers whose work came “under the microscope.” We wish to open up a conversation about public perceptions of social science and what we can do as social scientists to clarify our contributions to society and to more carefully consider the broader social impacts of our work, using the Report as one example of how our work may be perceived by non-researchers.

The Report was distributed May 26, 2011 via Sen. Coburn’s website. The document casts doubt on the usefulness and appropriateness of many NSF-funded research projects, including some devoted to studies of social media, such as our own. On July 5, 2011, a response, “Out of Focus: A Critical Assessment of the Senate Report, ‘The National Science Foundation: Under The Microscope’” was issued by the Democratic Staff of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology [4]. The Response argued that many of the projects described in “Under the Microscope” were inaccurately represented. The Response noted that not one of the researchers named in the Report was contacted by Coburn’s staff to fact-check or clarify the Report’s statements about the work. The Democratic Committee Response observed that “parodies and punchlines” were used to describe the NSF-funded work.

Congress is authorized to oversee the NSF to ensure that taxpayer monies are used productively and appropriately to advance national interests. It is important that research be open to public and Congressional scrutiny, and for Congress and the public to discuss its merits. But reviews and commentary on research must be done in a fair and even-handed way. We believe that a healthy debate about public spending is appropriate. The expenditure of taxpayer monies should be carefully considered. In presenting an inaccurate representation of the research under question, The Coburn Report diminishes the possibility of a fair and productive discussion.

Congressional attacks on science are not new. In 1975, Sen. William Proxmire established the “Golden Fleece Award” for government projects he deemed wasteful. Proxmire bestowed awards on the NSF, the Department of Energy, NASA, and the National Park Service—all agencies with track records of remarkable success admired the world over. Given this history and its reincarnation in the Coburn Report, as well as the complexities of revealing the broader impacts of research to wide audiences, it seems especially important that we pay attention to how our findings are perceived.

As an example, we examine the characterization of Ellison and Lampe’s research on social media in the Coburn Report and clarify the broader questions this research seeks to address. We also note misstatements about Nardi’s research [5] that show that Coburn’s staff did not make efforts to accurately describe NSF projects as they assembled the Report.

The Report’s section “Questionable NSF Projects” opens with a discussion of Ellison and Lampe’s project, introduced by the question, “Does playing FarmVille on Facebook help people to make friends and keep them?” [6] According to the Report, “A $315,000 NSF study suggests playing FarmVille on Facebook helps adults develop and maintain relationships.” The Report summary describes one conference paper that focuses on how communication through social network games (such as FarmVille) can affect social relationships among adult users. The Report does not mention the larger body of research this project produced, although other publications associated with this project are available in multiple locations online and also easily found through any search engine, as is general information about the grant. The paper described in the Report is one small piece of a larger project.

The larger research question Ellison and Lampe set out to explore concerns the use of social media for collaboration, information-sharing, and social support. Millions of Americans use sites like Facebook every day to connect with loved ones, crowdsource important information, and build social capital. Companies like Facebook, Microsoft, and Google are engines of economic growth and innovation. Understanding how and why people use the tools they produce is critical for ensuring that the potential of Internet technologies is realized. According to a recent Pew Internet report, 65 percent of Internet-using U.S. adults report using social network sites such as Facebook, MySpace, or LinkedIn [7]. This huge adoption over a short period of time is unprecedented in the history of communication technologies. Understanding the effects of this adoption on the behavior of Americans is an essential endeavor; it is vital to understand how technologies shape how we access information and manage social support because these are resources that improve the quality of people’s lives and enable them to contribute to society as citizens and professionals. To give one concrete example, research in the sociology literature tells us that we are more likely to find out about valuable job opportunities from people we do not know well (our weak ties; see [8]). Ellison and Lampe’s research suggests that Facebook helps people maintain larger networks of weak ties. In times of economic distress, people who utilize social media like Facebook are likely to be better positioned to hear about and take advantage of job opportunities. Understanding how this occurs and the pragmatic steps individuals can take to exploit the potential of social media is one of the questions the project can help address [9].

The processes that Ellison and Lampe study—finding information, giving and receiving social support, and maintaining social relationships—are important, and the fact that they are occurring on popular services does not mean the research is trivial. This line of research is essential to the creation of platforms that will fuel social and economic innovation over the next several years, if not decades. One indication of the interest in this work is the fact that their 2007 article on the implications of Facebook use [10] has been cited in academic papers over 1,000 times according to Google Scholar.

Turning to Nardi’s research, we see the Report’s facts about its production were mistaken. The Report states that “Professor Nardi has received multiple NSF grants, totaling over $3 million, part of which was for her playing World of Warcraft and publishing her findings” [11]. However, she did not receive over $3 million, but was co-investigator on a large NSF grant led by Principal Investigator Walt Scacchi at the University of California, Irvine. Many other co-investigators collaborated on the grant and expended the funds for their research projects. None of that research concerned World of Warcraft. No NSF funds were used for “playing World of Warcraft” or “publishing findings.” Nardi has never used grant money of any kind, NSF or otherwise, for gaming subscriptions, and has never taken summer salary for the research (nearly all of which was done in the evening or on weekends on her “own time”). Publication costs were borne by the publications themselves and their subscribers, as is standard in academic publishing.

As scientists, we welcome a legitimate and vigorous debate on the quality and contribution of our research. Science drives economic growth and meets our needs as human beings to understand and remake the world we live in. The video gaming research that the Report critiques is relevant to a multi-billion dollar industry that has surpassed film in revenue and provides jobs for our most creative youth [12]. Many programs in game-related studies are springing up in computer science departments across the country, including the University of California, Irvine, where Nardi teaches in the Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds in the School of Information and Computer Sciences. NSF-supported work has been instrumental in fostering the research activity that is part of such programs.

We believe there is an opportunity for this research community to better express its value to society. Even for those of us not doing research in the area of social media, a strong, unified voice speaking to the public will be of benefit. To do this, we should discuss in our town hall meetings and at our professional events how we can frame our work to show its importance to society. We could provide outlets at our conferences for purely academic work to be reframed for the general populace. We can provide recognition and rewards for those who do translate academic scholarship into societal benefits. We can claim more ownership of innovations that stem from our research insights. We can refer each other to media sources interested in our topics, and approach the media more often to celebrate our work. Finally, we can use the Coburn Report as an opportunity to reconsider the broader social impacts of our proposed projects, shifting these broader impacts to an enduring and deeply held mission.

Scientists who accept government funding are accountable to the citizenry, a responsibility they take seriously and execute with diligence. Social media constitute a new paradigm of interaction, and studies of social media are part of a critical research agenda established by experienced leaders at the National Science Foundation. At a time when technology is transforming society, it is imperative that social science research examine the social impact of new technologies. The scientific community would be remiss if they were not expending resources in learning how these new media tools shape lives, given their increasing importance on the everyday practices of millions of Americans. We strongly feel that we must all continue to pursue our commitment as researchers and citizens to conduct good science and make it widely available—a worthy and necessary investment in our future.


1. Shneiderman, B., Preece, J., and Pirolli, P. Realizing the value of social media requires innovative computing research. Comm. of the ACM 54, 9 (Sept. 2011), 34–37.

2. Coburn, T. The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope. April, 2011; http://coburn.senate.gov/public//index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=2dccf06d-65fe-4087-b58d-b43ff68987fa

3. See 2, p. 3.

4. Out of Focus: A Critical Assessment of the Senate Report, “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope”: A Staff Report by the Democratic Staff of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology; democrats.science.house.gov/committee-report/out-focus-critical-assessment-senate-report-“-national-science-foundation-under

5. Nardi, B. My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 2010.

6. See 2, p. 25.

7. Madden, M. and Zickuhr, K. 65% of online adults use social networking sites. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Aug. 26, 2011; http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Social-Networking-Sites.aspx

8. Granovetter, M. The strength of weak ties. The American Journal of Sociology 78 (1973), 1360–1380.

9. Prinzel, Y. Why it pays to study Farmville and Twitter. Forbes. July 6, 2011; http://blogs.forbes.com/investor/2011/07/06/study-farmville-facebook-twitter/

10. Ellison, N., Steinfield, C. and Lampe, C. The benefits of Facebook ‘friends’: Exploring the relationship between college students’ use of online social networks and social capital. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12, 3 (2007).

11. See 2, p. 38.

12. Bainbridge, W. The scientific research potential of virtual worlds. Science 317 (2007), 472.


Bonnie Nardi is an anthropologist in the School of Information and Computer Science at the University of California, Irvine. Her research concerns online computer games, ethnographic methods, activity theory, and comparative informatics.

Nicole B. Ellison is an associate professor in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University. Her research explores issues of self-presentation, relationship development, social capital, and identity in online environments such as online dating and social network sites.

Cliff Lampe is an assistant professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. His research explores how online tools can be used and designed to foster distributed collaborative activities. His work includes an examination of the tools and online social processes that help foster collaborative activities.

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