Book review: ‘Bit by Bit’ by Matthew J Salganik

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Social research in the digital age.

Today’s social scientists owe a debt of gratitude to the scientists and engineers who made the internet part of everyday life. As Matthew J Salganik, a sociology professor at Princeton University, acknowledges from the start of ‘Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age’ (Princeton University Press, £27.95, ISBN 9780691158648), the web provides researchers with a powerful tool that makes it possible to carry out experiments which until relatively recently would have been inconceivable.

The inspiration for this review of the opportunities the web offers for social research – and the dangers it poses – came early in Salganik’s career. Having chosen to gather information for his college dissertation online rather than in a laboratory, he built a website that allowed users to listen to and respond to music. Discovering one morning that a hundred people from Brazil had taken part overnight, he realised the extent to which being able to achieve this level of response while he was sleeping was in stark contrast to the difficulty his fellow students faced when struggling to recruit subjects.

That is just one example of how the transition to a digital world is shaping not just the thinking behind research, but also its effect on society.

The tone is informal, with lots of examples of how to learn from big data sources. What’s not covered, wisely in such a rapidly changing environment, is the detail of how to use specific applications like the Twitter API.

Salganik describes it as being “for social scientists who want to do more data science, data scientists who want to do more social science, and anyone interested in the hybrid of these two fields”. Why will engineers be interested? They’ll probably care that they may be unwittingly taking part in social research. Big data, especially in retail where there is a trade-off between convenience and giving away information about yourself, means if you’ve ever bought anything online your behaviour has been tracked and you’ve almost certainly been a participant in an experiment.

The other important issue is the extent to which empowering social scientists with new and more sophisticated tools also faces them with ethical dilemmas. The emergence of the Internet of Things means that taking part in an experiment won’t be as clear as filling in an questionnaire and giving explicit consent. Now that the appliances can be monitored, and agreement for the data collected to be used however the manufacturer wishes can be buried in small print, you’re likely to be participating in your own sleep, let alone the researchers’.

“As the power of researchers is increasing, there has not been an equivalent increase in clarity about how that power should be used,” Salganik warns, claiming that existing rules, laws and norms can be inconsistent and overlapping. This book tries to provide principles that can help researchers – whether they are in universities, governments, or companies – balance these issues and move forward responsibly.

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