The distant sound of well-armed sociologists

If you listen carefully you can hear a distant rumble from over the horizon. It’s the sound of sociologists advancing slowly towards our online data trail, about to release the mother of all data analysis campaigns that will rain from the internet like a storm from above.

Yesterday’s New York Times had a fascinating piece about online social networking tools, discussing how different forms of social relationships are being formed through the use of ‘broadcast to subscriber’ tools like Twitter and Facebook.

These articles pop up quite frequently, discussing how young people live in a ‘post-privacy’ world, or how our personal lives become increasingly public to our friends and acquaintances, but they rarely mention the ways in which these social networks can be used to reveal and exploit the dynamics of social power.

Sociology gets a bad rap in science as being ‘wooly’ or ‘vague’, but it’s often not to do with the methods its uses, but with the way of gathering data.

When attempting to understand social networks, traditional studies may ask people to fill in questionnaires about their social contacts and then the researchers draw inferences about who are the most important players in the community.

Two developments have made this much more powerful. The first is social network analysis, or rather, the application of rigorous mathematical methods from graph theory and network theory to social network analysis.

This allows the quantification of the network in important an interesting ways – such as who is most connected, whether the network is tightly integrated or how fragile it is.

One of the most interesting findings from these studies is that the most connected people, or those with the most explicit status (such as being the boss) aren’t always the most important people in a network.

For example, ‘friend collectors’ on Facebook and MySpace may seem to be the most socially connected, but they’re not necessarily the most influential because many of the connections represent very superficial social connections. Similarly, someone who has only a few connections may be connected to people influential in other subgroups, and so might have a huge knock-on influence. Social network analysis can identify these people.

The second development that has made sociology much more powerful is that the ‘wooliness’ in gathering data is increasingly disappearing because services like Facebook and Twitter mean we are creating the data ourselves, in incredible detail.

One use of this data is to sell to advertising space to marketing companies. Targeted advertising is now common, by location, age, sex or whatever explicit data you enter into your profile.

A much more powerful approach is to target advertising so it appears on the profile of the most influential people on the network. Indeed, Google has just registered a patent that describes exactly this process.

One of the advantages is that it can take advantage of the explicit data, and can identify the key people in a group, and is fairly resistant to friend collectors because it doesn’t just rely on totting up friends, it looks at the network as a whole.

So you could identity the most influential people in the 18-25 age bracket, or the most influential in a small town, or the most influential people that like a certain type of movie.

Online networks can then sell advertising space ranked by influence, like Google sells adwords based on popularity.

Better still, it gives a quantified way of sponsoring highly selected people. You could be the David Beckham of 18-35 year old salsa fans in your town, sponsored to put the latest Latin sounds on your playlist.

Like celebrities, each of us will have an individual worth to advertisers, a price on our profile, and we will be the commodity that technology companies sell to marketers.

These new online social networking tools allow the companies that operate them an insight into the social power structures that run through our lives, and the opportunity to influence them.

Link to NYT piece ‘Brave New World of Digital Intimacy’.

5 thoughts on “The distant sound of well-armed sociologists”

  1. The intent of sociology is to increase our understanding of the workings of society in order to improve it. This commercial appropriation of social research is not sociology, it’s business.

  2. Exactly why I don’t do any of this kind of stuff… MySpace, Twitter, etc. Waste of time frankly; I have better things to do with my life.

  3. As the web goes increasingly social, and increasingly conversational (twitter), sociology and psychology will become invaluable to our understanding of social practices online.

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