Digital Footprints: Opportunities and Challenges for Online Social Research

Paper by Golder, Scott A. and Macy, Michael for the Annual Review of Sociology: “Online interaction is now a regular part of daily life for a demographically diverse population of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. These interactions generate fine-grained time-stamped records of human behavior and social interaction at the level of individual events, yet are global in scale, allowing researchers to address fundamental questions about social identity, status, conflict, cooperation, collective action, and diffusion, both by using observational data and by conducting in vivo field experiments. This unprecedented opportunity comes with a number of methodological challenges, including generalizing observations to the offline world, protecting individual privacy, and solving the logistical challenges posed by “big data” and web-based experiments. We review current advances in online social research and critically assess the theoretical and methodological opportunities and limitations. [J]ust as the invention of the telescope revolutionized the study of the heavens, so too by rendering the unmeasurable measurable, the technological revolution in mobile, Web, and Internet communications has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of ourselves and how we interact…. [T]hree hundred years after Alexander Pope argued that the proper study of mankind should lie not in the heavens but in ourselves, we have finally found our telescope. Let the revolution begin. —Duncan Watts”