Q&A: Friedman School professor Sean Cash discusses research on Facebook use

Professor Sean Cash poses for a portrait. Via Friedman School of Nutrition

How much value do people assign to their Facebook accounts? More than $1,000 per user, according to a recent study in which researchers paid users to deactivate their accounts for a year. The study was headed by a team of researchers across the country, including Associate Professor at Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy Sean Cash, and published in the journal PLOS One. Cash, who is an economist, worked with Jay Corrigan, Saleem Alhabash and Matthew Rousu, to conduct a series of real-life auctions where the winners were paid to deactivate their Facebook accounts for up to a year. The study found that the value Facebook users place on the platform far exceeds its current market value of more than $400 billion, or about $180 per user. The Daily sat down with Cash to hear more about the study and about the impact that social media has on nutrition and public health.

The Tufts Daily (TD): How was the study conducted?
Sean Cash (SC): What we basically did was bring people into a room and have them bid on closing their accounts, and then we actually had them do it; it wasn’t just a hypothetical exercise. We had to train people how to participate in the auction, because the lowest bidder wins and you’re selling something that you already walked in the door with. The bidding was a little more complex so that we could have more detailed results. The trade-off was that we couldn’t survey too many people. It was a smaller sample — still over 1,000 people — and it was conducted in rounds. Our estimates are really based on the auction.

TD: What inspired you to conduct this specific research?
SC: I actually had been thinking about this topic for quite a while. I sometimes use this as a teaching example in some of my classes. One of the things we talk about in environmental and health economics is how the price that you pay for something may not be what it’s worth to you. For example, people value their Facebook accounts, but they don’t have to pay for it. So it was very interesting to see how important it was to people monetarily. The idea of an auction to get people to bid on closing their accounts is what we came up with.

TD: Why did you decide to use Facebook as the social media platform in your study?
SC: Facebook is the most valuable social media company and has the most users. I also think Facebook, while people joke about it being for grandparents, is broadly adopted across all [ages] and across parts of society, more so than other [social media platforms].

TD: The Friedman School, as well as much of your research, is focused on food and environmental issues. How does this study connect to those issues?
SC: Part of the connection to the Friedman School is the tools we’re using here, such as the auction. The methods that we were using in the study were highly related to other things we do at the Friedman School. Also, a lot of what is driving current interest in food choice, with questions like, “Is this healthy for me? Is this good for the environment? Is this good for the workers who produced it?” is social media. The marketing of food on social media and communication around food [is] a lot of what I would call the “new foodie-ism.” A lot of the information about food production is shared over social media, so I think a lot of our understanding of food comes from things we read on social media, news stories and popular books. I think social media is really driving that conversation. There’s also been some studies on how people who are distracted by social media have different snacking behaviors.

TD: How likely are the results to change compared to 10 years ago and 10 years in the future?
SC: I think the estimates are very subject to change. If you asked somebody 10 years ago what their Myspace account was worth to them versus now, you have very different answers. It’s a snapshot in time. The value of these Facebook accounts is what we call a network externality. What really makes social media useful to the users is that other people are on it. So as the popularity of different platforms changes, then the values would change. We collected our data before some of the recent scandals about Cambridge Analytica and privacy issues, so we might see different numbers now.

TD: What makes Facebook unique now?
SC: We’ve seen and heard of many people leaving Facebook, but most people are still on Facebook. And actually, the values that we were getting in our study show why we are still on Facebook … We do value being able to look at pictures of our high-school friends, easily sell our bookcases to our neighbors and everything else we do on Facebook. So even if we have concerns, we’re still here. What we’re trying to get at with this study is how much monetary value is placed on Facebook. It’s not even about money; it’s about what this adds to people’s lives. Money is just the yardstick.

TD: Your study found that students placed higher value on Facebook than community members did. Why do you think that is?
SC: There are a few reasons. One is that on a lot of campuses, Facebook is used as a safe way of organizing studying and clubs. People are willing to ‘friend’ people on Facebook and set up things. Maybe it’s safer than sharing phone numbers. When we were pre-testing this with students, I would sometimes ask them, “Why do you use Facebook?” And they would say that it was convenient for photos or that they wouldn’t know how else to reach their classmates.

TD: Facebook no longer operates as solely a social media platform, but also as a way for users to participate in business and read news. How do you think this has changed how important Facebook is?
SC: I think a lot of people are skeptical about what businesses have access to their information, but also people are conducting business on Facebook. One example is how people are buying and selling on Facebook. Every neighborhood in Boston has their own Freecycle group and that’s a way that people access resources.

TD: Was the resulting average amount that people had to be paid higher or lower than you expected?
SC: We had quite a range. We had people bid little to nothing because they wanted to do it anyway. We also had people bidding thousands and thousands of dollars. The average was over $1,000 for each of the different sample groups. It sounds like a big number but, on the other hand, it’s like getting a coffee every day. If people spend 30 minutes a day on Facebook, that’s a lot of time. Maybe it’s worth a few bucks a day to give that up. I think we were surprised at first until we put it into perspective and realized [how] much we use it. Think of how much people spend on cable, even if they don’t watch much TV.

TD: Do you think that the value of social media would change with younger generations, especially since they are exposed to more social media platforms?
SC: We did find some different patterns of substitutes and compliments. One thing about the younger users is that they may be less tied to any one platform. They might move on more quickly, especially on types of media where there is less of a focus on archiving and more about sharing in the moment. So I think the more substitutes there are, the less value that will be placed on a platform. The relative popularity of Snapchat in younger users is one example.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.