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Rich Pickings for Empirical Sociology: Cues from the Web

den Besten, Matthijs (2009) Rich Pickings for Empirical Sociology: Cues from the Web. In: Proceedings of the WebSci'09: Society On-Line, 18-20 March 2009, Athens, Greece. (In Press)

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Abstract

In the essay “The coming crisis of empirical sociology” (Sociology 41(5), 2007) Mike Savage and Roger Burrows argue that the digital economy risks marginalizing sociologists. The ease with which social data can be collected in a world full of loyalty-cards and RFID-chips make the methods of in-depth interview and sample survey on which sociologists rely look increasingly outdated. Moreover, as firms routinely collect all kinds of data without automatically granting sociologists access to them, it will be the marketing departments rather than the sociology departments that have the best insights into society. However, not all is lost: Large amounts of data are also available in the public domain and with a bit of creativity they can be made to reveal quite a bit of information about society. For instance, Mike Thelwall was able to compare levels of rudeness across countries, gender and age on the basis of user-profiles on a large social networking site. In my own work, I have been less interested in what people declare about themselves or others and more in the actions they perform or request. Where interactions have been recorded, looking for these performative cues and the actions that follow one can tell a lot about the motivations and intentions of the people involved. It is here that social relationships are played out and on-line culture is formed. Consequently, it is here that sociologists might want to look. In order to illustrate the power of cues, I will review two recent case studies in which I have been involved. The first one (published in Information, Communication & Society 11(2), 2008) is a study of an effort help readers understand Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Against the day” and the second (in Industry & Innovation 15(2), 2008) is a study of an effort to create an online encyclopaedia that is easy to understand for readers with a poor command of English. In both cases, the central cues are quite simple – a question mark in case of the novel and a label entitled “unsimple” in the case of the encyclopaedia. Nevertheless, the effect is there: virtually every obscure reference in Pynchon’s vast novel had been clarified on the web within a few months after publication; and articles in the encyclopaedia were kept relatively easy to read as the collection rapidly expanded over the years. In both cases, the cues triggered the actions that were needed to keep the community on course. In that sense, cues are not unlike the pheromones that guide ants to their food-source. And while a reduction of human behaviour to that of ants is a gross over-simplification in most cases, in some cases it might yield very valuable insights.

Item Type:Conference or Workshop Item (Poster)
Uncontrolled Keywords:stigmergy, data mining, communities of practice, collaboration
Subjects:Web Science Events > Web Science 2009
ID Code:207
Deposited By: W S T Administrator
Deposited On:24 Jan 2009 08:45
Last Modified:25 Oct 2011 16:35

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