Before there was Facebook

On Friday, I signed up for a Facebook account. Within hours, I connected with a best friend from high school. By this evening, I had thirty friends. Facebook is pretty addicting! I’m impressed with the site not just as an IT guy, but also as a simple, social human being — and as someone trained in social science research.

When Katherine I were on furlough back in 2000, we took a class called “Language Development”. In that class, we studied and discussed the things that influence language use and change. One of the concepts that caught my attention was that of “social networks”.

University of Michigan professor Dr. Leslie Milroy used social networking to study the use of the Irish language in that society. Once she was introduced to one Irish speaker, she established a rapport with that person and slowly worked her way through that person’s network and those of the people she met.

Dr. Milroy was able to learn a lot about “who knows who”, “who talks to who”, and “who uses what language with who”. Other important information included “how who knows who” and “how well who knows who” — are you tired of the Who’s yet? Dr. Milroy used the data she collected to paint a portrait of the Irish-speaking community she had visited, and she was able to draw conclusions about how the Irish language is used and how language change works its way through the community.

Such information is what we sought in our language surveys in Africa, and I felt that the idea might be fruitful if used among the very social African peoples. My research paper for that course focused on the ways we could employ social network theory in making decisions about Bible translation projects. Using it a village context, though, would be very different from making contacts on the Internet.

Facebook allows you to move through social networks around the world as easily as moving around your own living room. If I could add anything to it, I would add a meter that indicates how frequently you get in touch with each of your friends. The old language surveyor in me wants to add your choice of language, too (from the Ethnologue) — but that might be asking a bit much. Give it a try!