Exploiting the Social Graph

The Web is now a subject of academic study outside the confines of computer science. It is informing, and being informed by, a range of different disciplines as diverse as law, economics and media studies. However, because of the huge data sets about individuals and their social ties that are being collected, the potential for social science and computing is especially strong.

As Cameron Marlow, in-house sociologist at Facebook, recently told MIT Review:

“The biggest challenges Facebook has to solve are the same challenges that social science has…”

Up until fairly recently, social science was essentially restricted by the difficulty of obtaining data from large numbers of people, such as accurate details of their friendship links. Web 2.0 services can now provide that data easily as millions of us have happily uploaded and shared details of our private lives, creating what are known as social graphs, studied formally by graph theory.

Back in September 2010 when I was writing my book I came across the philosopher Pierre Lévy speaking to the Royal Society to the effect that: “Graph theory will be one of the main bases of the future of the human sciences”. At the time I thought Lévy was taking things too far, but it is now clear that social media, the exploration of complex networks and the scale of data being collected have opened new and fruitful horizons for the humanities. Added to the drive and ambition of the companies involved, he might not be far wrong.

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