Since the explosion of social media, hucksters and wannabes have swarmed around the internet claiming to offer revelations from their supposedly deep insights into the social web.
Laughably simplistic analysis has been allowed to brand itself “science”, for want of professionals taking large quantities of social media data and attempting to draw serious conclusions from it.
UK think tank Demos is attempting to do just that, with the launch today of its Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, which hopes to tease out meaningful conclusions about people and society from the extraordinary volume of data being created every day by members of the public.
The project is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, its staff appear to have more than a passing acquaintance with statistical and methodological theory – more than can be said for the so-called social media gurus with whose graphs and sophomoric opinions we have all been plagued until now.
As the CASM team themselves say: “The current field of social media analytics is inadequate for policy makers: standards of evidence and methodological rigour are not high enough to influence decision- or policy-making.
“Samples of convenience often produce ‘raw’ metrics of social media phenomena with no further corroboration, explanation or interpretation.
“Considerations of culture, context, group, language and psychology are rare, and the ethics of social media research even rarer.”
Secondly, the project is focused on seemingly nobler and more substantial goals than providing data to marketers and advertisers.
The project aims to develop analysis as “a valid instrument of research”, suitable for policy- and decision-makers by engaging a wide range of experts and having social good, rather than quid advertising profit, as its goal.
The Centre is currently developing a suite of projects, including research into whether social media can identify thresholds and tipping points of events, early event detection of emerging events, understanding online and offline groups and movements, understanding responses to announcements and events and so-called “community-level insights”.
It’s ambitious set of goals, and one that may struggle initially for credibility alongside more traditional research areas.
But one thing the team has got right is the need for much more serious thinking around these new digital platforms. If they get it right, the implications for national security alone are tremendous.