The internet is an unprecedented treasure-trove of quantitative data on social systems. Before now researchers could only dream of such data. I believe this provides the potentially fruitful opportunity to engage in formal, mathematical analysis of social systems (while remaining in a social-scientific vein, of course).
In the past century the field of economics underwent a mathematical revolution, focusing theoretical research on formal (mathematical) models to aid analysis and intuition, and empirical research to strengthen or rebut those models. This would have been impossible if the phenomena economics studies hadn’t been quantitative in nature; for example, if GDP numbers and employment data weren’t regularly compiled by developed nations, then modern macroeconomics could not have developed. This is one example of readily accessible quantitative data fueling a course of research, and surely there are others. (And perhaps the causation runs the other way too: when a group wants to study something, they do all they can to find good data, but this seems like the weaker direction.) Notable is the opposite case, though difficult to observe: when a particular field or direction of research is impossible because of a lack of useful data. Particular objects of study I’m interested in include “attention” or “influence,” which do not have clearly observable and measurable forms (what is the smallest unit of influence, anyway?); maybe something like “reputation”; or even abstract measures of happiness (utility, anyone?), which can explain why economics often treats consumption as a drop-in replacement. And so I turn to a study of the internet.
Out of the epic amounts of information generated by the plethora of internet-born social structures, data are lurking that could revolutionize the way we study social behavior. These data haven’t been compiled in appropriate forms yet — there is a lot of theoretical work to be done on what paradigm to use, how to aggregate the data, etc. I task Web Ecology with making sense of the morass of information, and turning it into useful data for researchers to study, build models around, and predict emergent phenomena. Once relevant data are identified and available, we can get to work on the fun stuff: the science of understanding people.
Economics has the most developed mathematical tool set for studying social behavior of any social science. With access to the data described above, researchers have an opportunity to apply those tools to something completely different, and maybe supremely worthwhile. For example, perhaps everyday social interaction (which we can approximate by interactions on the internet, maybe) can be modeled using the tried-and-true machinery of neoclassical microeconomics. Consumers of “reputational” or “social” goods would optimize utility given their (expanded notion of) budget constraints. What would be the arguments to their utility functions? What would prices and income represent in this system? All the quantities would represent something different, but all the relationships would stay the same.
Possible? Sure. Likely? Not really. But when we are harvesting the right data from the internet, we will be able to put these ideas to the test. We will be able to make changes to the theoretical apparatuses we have, develop some we haven’t even imagined, and set those to work helping us better understand human behavior.