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Social-media research: the next big (data) thing

The Economic and Social Research Council is preparing to launch a call for a global social-media research centre. Adam Smith talks to potential bidders and to ESRC advisers about the topics at the field’s leading edge.

Every day, 400 million tweets are posted on Twitter. The majority are from people who use the site to chat and broadcast their views, feelings and ideas. Such insights are a dream for social scientists, and form one stream of what some experts and policymakers are calling Big Data. Chancellor George Osborne considers the flood of data so important that he directed part of a £600-million R&D fund towards it last year. Some of that money is now going to be used by the ESRC to create an international social-media research centre, based in the UK.

The country already has patches of researchers who investigate data from social media. Sociologist Rachel Gibson’s group at the University of Manchester looks at how Twitter is used by politicians and voters, and Cardiff University’s Online Social Media Observatory, also known as Cosmos, considers how social scientists can use data from social media to answer fresh research questions such as how to predict crime. These projects are not part of a strategic UK investment in such data research; they have emerged organically, led by a handful of successful grantees, as different types of social-science data have emerged in the past decade.

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