On the surface Facebook is a social network, but those in the know recognize that it's actually one of the largest datasets of human trends, preferences and activity ever catalogued. One way to appreciate the vast potential of this dataset is to use the company's new Graph Search to find people who like "shitting their pants." Or men who like "RAPING!" (We said Facebook's repository of human data had great potential, not that it was being put to compelling use.)
That said, there are people out there using all our Likes and comments and preferences to look at more interesting trends. People like Sean Taylor (who actually works for fb). For instance: according to Taylor, Facebook has roughly 35 million account holders in the U.S. alone who have Liked the page of one of the National Football Leagues's 32 teams. That, he says, represents "one of the most comprehensive samples of sports fanship ever collected." All told, more than 1 in 10 Americans have declared allegiance to one NFL team or another. When he plumbed the depths of Facebook's data wells he came up with a county-by-county map of NFL fandom in the United States:
The map lends itself well to analysis. In some cases, Taylor notes, "whole states and even entire regions of the country uniformly support a single team" (looking pretty orange there, Wyoming); in others, individual states are divided against themselves (see Florida). But things get really interesting come playoff season:
Nationwide allegiances shift dramatically when you remove non-playoff teams. By early January, for example, Bronco Country had more than doubled in size. Texas, once a nearly solid greyish-purple monster, was suddenly a heterogeneous mixture of red, purple, orange and grey.
As the post-season progresses, you can see blocks of patchwork in the quilt of American fandom swapped out en masse. Vikings fans don massive cheese hats. The states formerly comprising Bronco Country now root for anybody but Baltimore. "With only two teams left for the Super Bowl we see a country divided more or less by geography," writes Taylor, "with 49ers fans dominating the West and the Ravens being the most popular in counties in the mid-Atlantic and Southern states. Shown here are all the maps, in order, as the post season progresses. Here's an enlarged map of where things stand as of today:
Now here's the question: what else could Facebook's human data be used for? I mean, football metrics are interesting (I don't even particularly like football, but I love datavisualization, and tend to spend WAY too much time perusing data like these), but shouldn't we be probing Facebook's databanks for something that can benefit humanity in more significant ways? Might it be used, like Twitter, to monitor disease outbreaks, or does it lack the microblogging platform's moment-to-moment temporal resolution? (How analogous is Facebook's status update to a person's twitter stream, anyway?) How might Facebook's data be used to monitor flu outbreaks, like Google's Flu Trends, or advance human knowledge in general? How else can Facebook give back to its users, and society — or even science — at large?
It seems like a question worth asking. If Facebook is to become the next Google, it could stand to take a page from The Big G's playbook and use all that data to do some good.