I think I’m using “big data” incorrectly

I think I’m using the term “big data” incorrectly. When I talk about big data, I’m referring to the massive amount of freely available information that researchers can collect from the internet. My expectation is that the researchers must choose which firehose best fits their research goals, collect and store the data, and groom it to the point of usability before using it to answer targeted questions or examining it for answers in need of a question.

The first element of this that makes it “big data” to me, is that the data is freely available and not subject to any privacy violations. It can be difficult to collect and store, because of its sheer size, but it is not password protected. For this reason, I would not consider Facebook to be a source for “big data.” I believe that the overwhelming majority of Facebook users impose some privacy controls, and the resulting, freely available information cannot be assigned any kind of validity. There are plenty of measures of inclusion for online research, and ignorance about privacy rules or shear exhibitionism are not a target qualities by any of these standards.

The second crucial element to my definition of “big data” is structure. My expectation is that it is in any researchers interest to understand the genesis and structure of their data as much as possible, both for the sake of grooming, and for the sake of assigning some sense of validity to their findings. Targeted information will be layed out and signaled very differently in different online environments, and the researcher must work to develop both working delimiters to find probable working targets and a sense of context for the data.

The third crucial element is representativeness. What do these findings represent? Under what conditions? “Big data” has a wide array of answers to these questions. First, it is crucial to note that it is not representative of the general population. It represents only the networked members of a population who were actively engaging with an online interface within the captured window of time in a way that left a trace or produced data. Because of this, we look at individual people by their networks, and not by their representativeness. Who did they influence, and to what degree could they influence those people? And we look at other units of analysis, such as the website that the people were contributing on, the connectedness of that website, and the words themselves, and their degree of influence, both directly an indirectly.

Given those elements of understanding, we are able to provide a framework from which the analysis of the data itself is meaningful and useful.

I’m aware that my definition is not the generally accepted definition. But for the time being I will continue to use it for two reasons:

1. Because I haven’t seen any other terms that better fit
2. Because I think that it is critically important that any talk about data use is tied to measures that encourage the researcher to think about the meaning and value of their data

It’s my hope that this is a continuing discussion. In the meantime, I will trudge on in idealistic ignorance.


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