Mating patterns have long been considered an optimal barometer for intergroup relations: Who is willing and unwilling to mate with whom can tell us a great deal about the types of social cleavages (e.g., racial, socioeconomic, religious) that characterize a given society. While most sociological research on mate choice has focused on marriage records, these data provide only a limited window into the complex, dynamic, and potentially asymmetric forces that lead to romantic coupling. Meanwhile, online dating is a phenomenon that has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, and data from these sites have the potential to surmount a number of limitations of prior work—providing an unprecedented look at how social boundaries are enacted and eroded in the earliest stages of finding a partner.
What is more important to a blossoming friendship: identifying with the same racial background or sharing the same tastes in music? What types of preferences are most likely to “spread” through social ties—or cause your friends to run in the opposite direction? Do friends tend to resemble one another because “similarity breeds attraction” or because friends become more similar over time? These seemingly basic questions have been notoriously difficult to answer because they require detailed data on both individual characteristics and social relationships (and how “tastes” as well as “ties” evolve over time). Data from the ubiquitous social network website Facebook—combined with recent advances in network modeling—create new opportunities for addressing these puzzles.
From academic papers to the popular press, there has been a great deal of enthusiasm behind the potential for social media to revolutionize civic engagement—and a few scattered dissenters. Rarely, however, is either type of claim substantiated with systematic empirical evidence. The Save Darfur Cause on Facebook provides a striking illustration of Internet “slacktivism” at its worst (finest?): Among the 1.2 million members of this massive online movement, only a fraction engaged in any meaningful behavior (whether social recruitment or financial donation) beyond the basic act of joining. In other words, Facebook enabled an “army of armchair activists” rather than facilitating any deep or sustained commitment to this social cause.
Just as contemporary advances in technology have transformed social interaction, so too have they provided exciting new opportunities for social scientists. New datasets that are larger and more detailed than ever before—and are often collected in “natural” electronic settings without researcher intervention—are providing scholars with a fresh take on classic sociological questions. As more and more researchers and institutions dedicate time and resources to studying big data, however, it is important that we are mindful of both the strengths and limitations of this approach; the latter have received comparatively little attention.
Science advances through human cooperation. This cooperation can take place on both a formal level (e.g., when one researcher co-authors with another) as well as on an informal level (e.g., when one researcher asks another for feedback or advice). While both can be studied using a network lens, systematic data on the latter are generally unavailable. Acknowledgments in scientific papers provide a glimpse into this hidden infrastructure undergirding academic production: a messy, multifaceted web that tells us as much about collaboration and integration as it does about excellence and exclusion.
Other publications and works-in-progress—using a diverse array of methods—address a variety of (largely unrelated) questions: Do people still form groups in the absence of differentiating characteristics? Are TED talks more about “ideas worth spreading” or “people worth listening to”? Why do gang members murder one another? Do e-sports have the potential to overcome traditional forms of prejudice? Who leaves and enters the science and engineering workforce; how do these workers upgrade their skills; and what does it mean to be a “science and engineering” worker in the first place?