Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Analysing social networking sites

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Decorative image from MySpace website showing Logo and headings
Image from MySpace website



Open/close headingCase study details

Title: Quantitative Analysis of MySpace Users: Gender, Friend Counts and Swearing

Author: Mike Thelwall

Affiliation: University of Wolverhampton


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[Open/close heading]Project aims and overview

Social network sites have rapidly grown in previous years, with MySpace apparently challenging even Google as the most-visited web site in the U.S. (Prescott, 2007). As a result of the rapid growth of social networks, their importance far outweighs the volume of research about them (for an introduction see boyd and Ellison, 2007) and social scientists now need to answer general questions, such as who is using them and how they are being used, as well as to address specific issues such as how group X is using social networks, and to investigate privacy concerns. The Wolverhampton MySpace quantitative research project took a predominantly general approach: extracting general details about MySpace users from their online profiles and then investigating factors associated with gender and friendship patterns (Thelwall, 2008/9, to appear).

The findings included:

  • Women are preferred as friends by both male and female users (see Figure 1 for the overall friendship gender distribution and the tendency for a higher proportion of female friends)
  • “The typical MySpace user is apparently female, 21, single, with a public profile, interested in online friendship and logging on weekly to engage with a mixed list of mainly female ‘friends’ who are predominantly acquaintances” (Thelwall, 2008/9, to appear).
  • There were apparently three distinct friendship dynamics: real friendship, acquaintanceship, and stranger acknowledgement
Graph showing the proportion of female firends and the tendencey for a higher proportion of female friends
Figure 1: The distribution of the proportion of females in the “Top 8” best friends of a sample of 403 MySpace users.

A follow-up project investigated language use in MySpace, concentrating on the extent to which strong swearing associated with gender (Thelwall, 2008, to appear). It found evidence that amongst young U.K. MySpace members, the strongest swear words were used with similar frequencies by males and females – apparently the first evidence of gender equality for swearing in English.


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[Open/close heading]Methodological Innovation

MySpace is a very attractive object for quantitative social science research because it is important and innovative and because, almost accidentally, it is easy to select random samples of it users. The reason why random samples are possible is because each member is allocated with a unique ID number and randomly sampling these numbers –for example with Excel’s random number function rand() – translates into randomly sampling members. To find the member associated with an ID, simply visit any MySpace profile page and alter the ID in the URL to the one selected. A powerful general approach to analyse MySpace quantitatively is therefore the following:

  1. Find the last MySpace ID number (approximately)
  2. Create a random sample of numbers up to the size of the last MySpace ID
  3. Download the pages associated with these random number IDs
  4. Apply the desired analysis technique to each downloaded page


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Open/close headingPotentials and problems of the methodology

The random sample technique for MySpace has some limitations. Most seriously, about a third of MySpace users – and all those with declared ages under 16 - have private profiles, meaning that a researcher can only obtain very basic information about the member (including gender). This means that for most purposes the random sample approach described above is biased against users with privacy concerns and against younger users. Second, any analysis of MySpace profiles is dependant upon the honesty of member self-reporting. Some users may deliberately set out to deceive with their profile ages, including those under 14 who lie about their age to gain membership (Hinduja and Patchin, 2008). It is not clear what percentage of information is truthful, but it seems that ages are about 90% accurate and other information (e.g., gender) seems likely to be mostly (99%?) accurate.

Other researchers have also taken advantage of the ease of MySpace sampling to produce interesting research, for example concerning information disclosure (Hinduja and Patchin, 2008) and the geographic spread of friends (Escher, 2007). It seems that the potential for this approach is much wider, however. For instance it could be used to investigate language use or any topic of common interest in MySpace.
For those who wish to apply this technique and need to automatically download a large number of pages then this is possible using free open source software (e.g. [External Link - opens in a new window]http://search.cpan.org/dist/WWW-Myspace/) or email the author if you are a PhD student or researcher and would like to use his (free) MySpace analysis software.


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Open/close headingReferences

boyd, d. and Ellison, N. (2007) Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 1.

Escher, T. (2007) The geography of (online) social networks. Web 2.0, York University. Retrieved September 18, 2007 from: [External Link - opens in a new window]http://people.oii.ox.ac.uk/escher/wp-content/uploads/2007/09/Escher_York_presentation.pdf.

Hinduja, S. and Patchin, J. W. (2008) Personal information of adolescents on the Internet: A quantitative content analysis of MySpace. Journal of Adolescence, 31, 1, 125-146.

Prescott, L. (2007) Hitwise US consumer generated media report. Retrieved March 19, 2007 from: [External Link - opens in a new window]http://www.hitwise.com/.

Thelwall, M. (2008, to appear). Fk yea I swear: Cursing and gender in a corpus of MySpace pages. Corpora, 3, 1. Retrieved November 14, 2007 from: [External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.scit.wlv.ac.uk/~cm1993/papers/MySpaceSwearing_online.doc.

Thelwall, M. (2008/9, to appear). Social networks, gender and friending: An analysis of MySpace member profiles. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. Retrieved August 23, 2007 from: [External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.scit.wlv.ac.uk/~cm1993/papers/MySpace_d.doc.


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Author of this page: Mike Thelwall - Year of publication: 2008 - Affiliation: University of Wolverhampton
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