Why Are Social Scientists So Keen On Finding All About Your Data?

Do you think everything you do on the Internet is entirely private? Dont fool yourself, the Internet knows it all!

There are terms that define each generation and historical period. During the Enlightenment, knowledge was a priority. Then there were new key terms, such as industrialization, modernity, progress, youth, freedom, free market, and so on. What all these have in common is both a concern and an excitement about the future and technologies and it would seem that it’s already here. What term would define our generation? The digital world, advanced technologies, social media, big data? It’s probably all of them. We’ve definitely incorporated them into our everyday life, and we could even say we can’t live without them. However, have you stopped to think what’s really our role in this new world? To what point do we really have an agency on these means of communication that entertain us so much? 

Honestly, until very recently I couldn’t care less about big data and how social media works. But in fact, these terms that define us as a generation shed light on who we are and how we behave. Take Netflix, for instance. Last week they started an end-of-the-year marketing campaign in which they revealed some disquieting information about their user's activities on the platform. No, it’s not as bad as you think. It was all about exposing, without throwing any names, those who were obsessed with determined movies or series and how many times they’ve watched it in the past year. This naturally wasn’t something many people were happy about, since they felt it was an invasion of their privacy. Something similar and way more severe happened with Facebook quite recently. They had taken some information from determined users without any consent and tried to make a “sociological” experiment where they were shown only negative or positive information to see how much social media has an impact on our mood. Yes, digital companies make use of different systems to see how people react to their content and how they use it for different purposes. Call it optimization of their product, marketing targets, or like Facebook's situation, trying to see how people behave in the modern world.

Not so long ago, we were talking about how platforms like Pornhub take all this data, and every year they publish the most searched themes and words to show us how even pornography can reveal a lot about our concerns as a society, our tastes, and our darkest fantasies. The thing here is that basically everything we do on the Internet leaves a trace and a mark that, no matter how careful you are, is out there to be analyzed and used as the media owners want. I think that’s absolutely understandable. At the end of the day, we basically agreed on them using this information. But why do social sciences have been trying to get all this information as well? Matt Salganik, a sociologist at Princeton University, has devoted his professional career to the use of big data in this branch of science to understand how this technologically dependent generation behaves.

As he explains, sociology, psychology, anthropology, among others, are trained in designing, creating, and putting into practice specific surveys and tests to analyze and study a determined social phenomenon. This information, called “custom-made data,” is envisioned and applied to a very specific and tiny percentage of the population meant to represent us all. You just have to take a look at a random study made by one researches from these disciplines, and you’ll see how to make their studies more diverse, they end up applying them to about a dozen of different groups. Today, this is something that has been changing, since scientists like Salganik are understanding the importance of “ready-made data” as a tool to see a broader picture.

Big data is created simultaneously and continuously. Everything is being counted and registered, from what type of content you access to even how much time you spend on it. All this is processed by teams of data scientists from companies, or even governments, to understand the population and their behavior online, but beyond that, social sciences are so keen on acquiring all this information to understand our likes and activities. They don’t care if John Doe spends eight hours playing Farmville on Facebook or if he watched Legally Blonde 253 times in the past year. What they want to see is what lies beneath that behavior and, more importantly, how this is repeated throughout the world.

Naturally, for security, business, privacy, legal, and ethical reasons, this information isn’t available for the public, so many social scientists still have to find a way to access to it. So, even though big data holds so many important facts about society and how the world is evolving, accessibility is still an issue and a privilege. Still, the digital world is changing so fast that, even if they had full access to this information and all the tools to analyze it, it’s very likely that by the next month the results of their study will be now irrelevant. This is something that we’re still getting used to and that probably will be regulated properly by the next generation.


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Images from Black Mirror