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What Facebook Taught Me About Research

By Lee Heller / September 2020

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I remember being a bright-eyed doctoral student eager to make a mark on the world of educational research. My dissertation topic focused on using Facebook to help online students with feelings of isolation, lack of connectedness to their school and classmates, satisfaction with school, and engagement with their classmates and school. This topic meant a lot to me because I understood the hardships that come along with being an online student as I earned my master’s degree and soon my doctorate online.

Other studies [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9] have looked for social media uses in education before; however, I wanted this study to stand out. First, I wanted to add to the slim body of research that investigated if there might be a connection between the use of social media and online student retention. Second, I wanted this study to conduct this study only using social media to contact participants. Therefore, Facebook and Facebook Messenger would be the only methods of contacting potential participants.

After careful review of the literature and previous survey instruments that had been used it became clear that an instrument did not exist that covered the areas I intended to study. Therefore, I created a survey, the CESI Facebook Survey (Connectedness, Engagement, Satisfaction, Isolation) for participants to express their agreement or disagreement. I had my Facebook Messenger contact list and my messages were ready to send. I was 100 percent ready to start my research. Nothing stood in my way, except Facebook. Yes, Facebook. The social magnet of the world that connects anyone, at any time, and anywhere, became the biggest roadblock to my study, my quest to learn if Facebook could help online students survive their pursuit of a degree, and the ultimate completion of my dissertation. It seemed, however, that Facebook would not allow me to go out into the world before teaching me some things about doing research.

Lesson 1: To have or not have Facebook Messenger that is the question.

As I contacted each of my 500 randomly selected potential participants through Facebook Messenger, I soon discovered the horrible fact that not all Facebook members have Facebook Messenger, even if they show up as “available” in Facebook Messenger. Those who were not subscribed to Facebook Messenger, when I contacted them, a very small message would appear to invite that person to join Messenger. Unfortunately, this message was so small that it took hundreds of messages sent before I realized that there was a problem.

Despite this hiccup, I worked around those who were not members of Facebook Messenger by replacing them with other randomly selected potential participants. Of course, I had to go back through my list of sent messages and scratch those that had this invite message. I quickly learned to check for the invite to join Messenger message that would appear on each profile before getting too involved in a particular potential participant. I was sure, with this new knowledge, that it would be smooth sailing from there, but this was only the first lesson.

Lesson 2: You have new mail. No, really, please read me!

My second lesson was that even if a message went through to my intended participants, there was no guarantee they ever saw the message. Because I was not a Facebook friend to any of these potential participants, my messages fell into a spam folder. I have no doubt that some of my messages are still sitting in that folder today. Despite multiple follow-ups, these messages may never have been viewed. So even if these possible participants might have assisted me by taking the survey, they never knew that I or the survey even existed.

A lesson learned but unfortunately, unlike the previous lesson, there was simply no way to get around this fact. I was completely at the mercy of whether or not the potential participant checked the folder and, of course, whether or not they wanted to help. Okay, so (1) there are potential participants on my list that are Facebook members, but do not have Facebook Messenger; (2) my messages to potential participants are lost in a folder where they may never be seen. Discouraged, yes. Unfortunately, the story does not end here as Facebook still had more to teach me. 

Lesson 3: That’s a little too much socializing from you.

Facebook next taught me that despite being the mecca of social media, there is only so much communicating they want going on. Seem strange? Allow me to explain. I could only send a certain, unspecified, number of messages per day on Facebook Messenger before I was banned from contacting anyone for a period of time, which could be a few hours or even a week. The penalty for sending too many messages may be even longer than a week, but after getting punished by banning me for a week a few times I tried very hard not to upset the Facebook powers that controlled my access. 

Therefore, instead of contacting as many of my potential participants as possible in a day, I was limited to 20–25 messages per day. I do understand this feature, as none of us want to be bombarded with tons of unsolicited messages each day, spam folder or not. However, the boundaries should be better communicated and perhaps exceptions made for certain cases, like research. For example, while searching on the Internet to discover why I was banned from sending messages the first time, I read about a best man who was barred from sending messages because he was sending instructions and directions to wedding invitees and sent one message too many. Defeated, yes. However, I am stubborn, and I like to finish what I start. So, I pressed on.

Lesson 4: I would love to help but I know there is something better I could be doing.

After finding a way around or through all these challenges, I soon faced my final Facebook lesson. People lie on Facebook—with or without malice. I am not naïve enough to think that all stories are true on Facebook and every picture posted is real; however, this was a different kind of lesson. I found nothing made my heart skip a beat like opening an email that I had received a completed survey. I also found nothing brought me down faster than those who would actually find my Facebook Messenger message, take the time to respond to me, tell me they would be happy to help, and then never take the survey. I would rather the message sat in their spam folder unopened. This was a terribly cruel lesson to learn. I had to learn to actually wait for that email confirmation that I had a completed survey before getting excited about any Facebook responses.

This was a very long process due to the limitations of using Facebook and Facebook Messenger as the only method of contact and despite it all, my stubbornness prevented me from quitting. From the onset I believed this would be a fairly quick study because I had direct access to my intended participants as they were already part of academic Facebook groups. However, quick turned into what would amount to a yearlong battle. Facebook, through its lessons, helped me become a wiser and a more determined researcher than I ever might have become if the process were quick and easy. Yes, it also made me a bit more cynical, but there is nothing wrong with that in research.

The point of this story is not to bash Facebook in any way. I am a believer in Facebook and Facebook Messenger and think that further research should be conducted to explore additional ways that social media could help online students. According to my research, there are connections between Facebook usage and online students feeling less isolated, feeling better connected, feeling more satisfied, and engaging more [10]. Facebook and other social media tools may be a small step to help keep online students from dropping out of their online programs.

This little memoir serves to enlighten those who are also thinking about doing research using Facebook and/or Facebook Messenger, especially as the only form of communication to your potential participants. Be prepared to have your limits tested but remember that through pain comes growth and, hopefully, new discoveries. I intend to continue my research, using social media, in an effort to help online students feel more connected to their schools as traditional students typically do 

Moving forward, with the knowledge that Facebook has taught me, should make my future studies run more smoothly. Of course, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Facebook still had another lesson or two to teach me. I hope my experiences using Facebook for research helps you avoid the lessons I faced and allows you to design a study that is far less painless. I wish all of you luck as you strive to make your mark upon the world.


[1] Aaen, J. and Dalsgaard, C. Student Facebook groups as a third space: between social life and schoolwork. Learning, Media and Technology 41 1 (2016), 160-186.

[2] Anderson, J. C. Learner satisfaction in online learning: An analysis of the perceived impact of learner-social media and learner-instructor interaction. Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2013. Paper 1115. Retrieved from ProQuest. (UMI No. 3570281)

[3] Bozkurt, A., Karadeniz, A., and Kocdar, S. (2017). Social networking sites as communication, interaction, and learning environments: perceptions and preferences of distance education students. Journal of Learning for Development (JL4D) 4, 3 (2017), 348–366.

[4] Brooks, S. L. Social media usage: examination of influencers and effects. Dissertation. Washington State University. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (UMI No. 3598043). 2013.

[5] Burkart, E. J. Facebook use and engagement of college freshmen. University of West Florida. 2013.

[6] Hamidy, W. A comparative study of the role of social media in the engagement of students in online courses. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (UMI No. 3669106). 2014.

[7] Sikes, S. M. “Facebook is my extracurricular life!”: A phenomenological examination of undergraduate Facebook usage and student involvement. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global (UMI No. 3663004). 2015.

[8] Thomas, J. The engagement and development of students in online bachelor degree programs. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (ProQuest No. 10103816). 2016.

[9] Whitehurst, J. N. Boundaries to instructional use of Facebook in higher education: a grounded theory collective case study. Dissertation, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (ProQuest No. 10013300). 2015.

[10] Heller, L. M. How Do You Like Me Now? Social Media Bridging the Distance in Online Education. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. 2019, (ProQuest No. 13879443)

About the Author

Dr. L. Heller was born in New York but has called Florida home for the last 20 years. During his time in Florida, Dr. Heller has spent 17 years working in the fields of education and technology. He earned his Master’s degree and then Doctorate from Nova Southeastern University with a focus on instructional design and a research agenda, which includes, social media, distance learning, and student success. He enjoys exotic travel, research, and emerging technologies.

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