Big Data –large-scale aggregate databases of imprints of online and social media activity– has captured scientific and policy attention. However, this emergent field is challenged by inadequate attention to methodological and conceptual issues. In this talk I examine, some of these issues.
Methodologically: 1. Inadequate attention to the structural biases of the platform(s) used to generate datasets (the model organism problem); 2. The practice of selecting on the dependent variable (via hashtag analyses, for ex.) without attention to the complications; 3. Lack of clarity with regard to sampling, universe and representativeness (the denominator problem); 4.Limiting analyses to a single platform (hence missing the ecology of flows).
Conceptual issues I raise include: 1. Lack of clarity in interpreting aggregate mediated interactions –clicks, status updates, retweets—which are in fact, complex social interactions; 2. Appropriateness of network methods imported from other fields to human interactions; 3. Concentrating on “node-to-node” interactions even though “field effects“ –via broadcast or large-scale events– are integral to the socio-cultural experience; 4. Reflexivity –that humans will alter behaviors around metrics– needs to be built into the analysis; 5. Assuming additivity of interactions without examining semantics or context; 6. Constructing the relationship between network and non-network attributes.
Zeynep Tufekci is a visiting fellow at CITP for 2012-13. She is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her research revolves around the interaction between technology and society. Topics that interest her include new media and social movements, collective action, civic participation, sociality, privacy and public life. She has conducted and published research on a range of topics include media use of protesters in Tahrir square, online social networking and privacy and publicity behaviors of young adults and technology use by middle school students. She was previously a fellow at Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her work at CITP will focus on the interaction between the rapid proliferation of social media and mechanisms of social change.