Friday, July 15, 2011

Facebook as research tool

My last several writing projects (namely a book and an expansive online feature that I will launch imminently) have involved extensive interviewing. When I’m looking for someone contemporary, the first place I now look is Facebook.

As recently as 2007, the thought of going to a social media site to locate (or at least narrow down) someone didn’t occur to me. But it was ultimately MySpace (you remember, yes?) which led me to the biggest find of my professional career.

Facebook is good for triangulating. If you know a person’s city, or you’ve used public records sites to learn the names of a person’s relatives, Facebook can help you line up a likely group to contact. Or if the person you’re searching for has an unusual name, Facebook can be a godsend.

If you don’t have any of that information, you can still slog it out on Facebook, individually contacting every “John Smith” with the hope that one is paydirt.

However, ironic though it may be for a company that is regularly challenged for privacy violations, Facebook is vigilant about spam control. I learned this the annoying way.

I was in search of a person. Let’s call him, well, John Smith. I began contacting every John Smith on Facebook, copying and pasting the same query for each. It couldn’t have been more than 10 when Facebook threw up a red box warning me that I may be in violation of Facebook policy. It went on to explain that I was sending messages too fast and if I continued, I would be blocked from sending messages for anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

Yet I’d already been blocked. And it was indeed about a day before I could send any messages again through Facebook.

Spam is broadly defined as unwanted contact, but I feel elemental to spam is the idea that someone is trying to sell you something (even if it’s just selling you on the decision to click a link).

But what I was doing was research. It may be intrusive in the sense that it’s just as unsolicited as a sales pitch, but it’s not a blanket approach, targeting whoever’s attention I can grab. I am approaching select people—and among them may be the only people who would have certain information.

In the greater interest of “getting the story” for the public to benefit from, do writers have a right to ask anyone anything anytime they want by any means necessary?

Should Facebook have a system by which professional writers and researchers can register and then use the message function without restriction?

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