The internet and the web have changed the way we do business, learn, communicate, live and even think – a development apparent to many people. What is not so well known is that the internet has also started to change the scientific landscape in various – arguably profound – respects.
Rather than outline all these changes, I’m going to elaborate on one specific issue — one which really stands out, since it provides us with the chance to undertake completely novel scientific activity: “big data”. The term “big data” refers to very large sets – containing gigabytes of data and beyond – which can be accumulated from all over the internet, be it via online news, forum discussions, Youtube comments, product reviews, blog posts or social media traffic.
A very interesting aspect of this kind of data is that it is social data, produced by humans using the web as their medium of communication. It is the intrinsic accessibility and openness of the web that is essential in this respect: These qualities not only allow others to read, comment, reply or share what you write, post or upload – they also allow researchers to take a deeper look at what is actually ‘going on’. Often referred to as “Computational Social Science”, it is a newly emerging field with the possibility of substantially increasing and altering our understanding of how societies work.