Sociology grad student: “the Internet is a sociologist’s playground”

A sociology graduate student makes an interesting claim: “the Internet is a sociologist’s playground“:

The Internet is a sociologist’s playground, says Scott Golder, a graduate student in sociology at Cornell University. Although sociologists have wanted to study entire societies in fine-grained detail for nearly a century, they have had to rely primarily upon large-scale surveys (which are costly and logistically challenging) or interviews and observations (which provide rich detail, but for small numbers of subjects). Golder hopes that data from the social Web will provide opportunities to observe the detailed activities of millions of people, and he is working to bring that vision to fruition.  The same techniques that make the Web run—providing targeted advertisements and filtering spam—can also provide insights into social life. For example, he has used Twitter archives to examine how people’s moods vary over time, as well as how network structure predicts friendship choices. Golder came to sociology by way of computer science, studying language use in online communities and using the Web as a tool for collecting linguistic data. After completing a B.A. at Harvard and an M.S. at the MIT Media Lab, he spent several years in an industrial research lab before beginning his Ph.D. in sociology at Cornell.

I would think that having a background in computer science would be a big plus for a sociologist today. Lots of people want to study social networking sites like Facebook and work with the data available online. But I wonder if there still aren’t a few issues to overcome before we can really tap this information:

1. Do companies that have a lot of this data, places like Google and Facebook, want to open it up to researchers or would they prefer to keep the data in-house in order to make money?

2. How will Internet users respond to the interest researchers have in studying their online behavior if they are often not thrilled about being tracked by companies?

3. Has the sampling issue been resolved? In other words, one of the problems with web surveys or working with certain websites is that theses users are not representative of the total US population. So while internet activity has increased among the population as a whole, isn’t internet usage, particularly among those who use it most frequently, still skewed in certain directions?

4. Just how much does online activity reveal about offline activity? Do the two worlds overlap so much that this is not an issue or are there important things that you can’t uncover through online activity?

I would think some of these issues could be resolved and the sociologists who can really tap this growing realm will have a valuable head start.

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