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“Market Research Has Changed”: Inside Facebook’s Renewed Efforts to “Study” Its Users

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Facebook’s second attempt at a market research initiative promises to improve upon prior missteps in user safety and data access.

“We’ve learned that what people expect when they sign up to participate in market research has changed, and we’ve built this app to match those expectations.”

These words, shared by Facebook Product Manager Sagee Ben-Zedeff, accompanied the launch announcement for the company’s new research effort, Study by Facebook. The app, available for Android users in the US and India, iterates considerably from Facebook’s last attempt at market research in scope, but in a number of ways in legitimacy as well.

Facebook Research and its Onavo Protect launched earlier this year, only to be shut down unceremoniously after a high-profile TechCrunch report revealed a number of disconcerting elements of the study protocol. Among them: clear workarounds to Apple’s enterprise developer certificate (the most likely reason that the forthcoming Study app is unavailable for iOS), invasive access to research participant data and mobile usage details, and under-18 study participants.

Here, we take a closer look at their fresh start in these efforts, guided by the principles they’ve set forth as hallmarks of the program.

Transparency

Transparency has been the clarion call for so many of Facebook’s latest efforts, and their selling point for the program has been to let people know what the program entails in full. To begin, study subjects will know that they’re participating in a Facebook-run study, something that evidently was unclear in prior efforts.

The platform is also not embarking on this process alone; the product announcement revealed collaboration with “Applause, a long-time partner who is experienced in managing this type of market research and works with many other companies in the industry. They’ll manage the registration process, all compensation to participants, and customer support.”

As far as the main part of the study, Facebook has been clear about what they will be looking at and what they won’t. Once in the study, here’s what the company will have access to:

  • The apps installed on a participant’s phone
  • The amount of time spent using those apps
  • Participant’s country, device and network type
  • App activity names, which may show us the names of app features participants are using

And here’s what they reportedly won’t have access to, or won’t be recording:

  • user IDs
  • passwords
  • any of the participant’s content, such as photos, videos, or messages

And of crucial concern to users, “we […] don’t sell information from the app to third parties or use it to target ads, and it is not added to a participant’s Facebook account if they have one.”

Compensation for Participants

Those who engage in these research efforts will be compensated, although (in a curious lack of transparency) the precise amount has not been revealed. Payment will be coordinated by Applause, and deposited monthly to user PayPal accounts. It’s also worthwhile to note that Study users will be reminded periodically that they are enrolled in the study—a pleasant development, given the access that researchers will have to phone activities.

The logistics of compensation, paired with the limited fashion in which users will be recruited (via ad-only, users cannot opt in unless the ad is served to them organically) will be interesting to see unfold, given the economic differences between the two initial countries of participation: the United States and India.

TechCrunch Josh Constine points out, “[Facebook] has the cash to potentially offer so much to Study participants that it effectively coerces them to give up their data; $10 to $20 per month like it was paying Research participants seems reasonable in the U.S., but that’s enough money in India to make people act against their better judgement.” But absent the details about payment, it’s hard to know precisely how this part of the process will work.

Keeping Information Safe and Secure

It’s no surprise that Facebook is being so explicit about this element of the process; prior scandal and breaches have understandably made people wary about handing over their data. Being vocal at the outset that information will stay with the company, and not be sold to third parties may help…and yet, might folks be wary about how vulnerable it is to hackers or improper storage?

Additionally, Gizmodo’s Catie Keck poses a worthwhile question: we know that data is valuable, and Facebook is affirming that by offering to pay for it. SMWNYC featured speaker Brittany Kaiser advocates for this model, insisting that companies who want our data should behave this way. Keck mused in her coverage, will users think of their data in a new light once they’re compensated for it? “Would more people use Facebook to collect a small check every month, or would it drive home the fact that this is valuable private information that we’ve been giving away?” Personally, given how sophisticated Facebook’s ad tech is, I wonder if ads for the program are being served to participants unlikely to ask that question.

Ben-Zedeff closes the product announcement with what feels like an earnest promise to undertake this project the right way:

Approaching market research in a responsible way is really important. Transparency and handling people’s information responsibly have guided how we’ve built Study from Facebook.

The foundational principles are set, and they align with the goals that Facebook has been promoting in all other areas: transparency, respect for users, and data security. After embarrassing missteps with prior versions of these initiatives, Study has an opportunity to teach the company something new about its users—and itself.

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