Social data is not social knowledGe


If we’d make a data set of everything you’ve done online, could we make a copy of you? Or would it be a copy of your digital self? How can we tackle the difference? In this [two part] essay we discuss how to better approach the human aspect of your business, both online and offline.


Digitality is already so commonplace that it can feel like we live primarily on the internet. Job applications, dating, shopping, travel, friends – social media is integrated in practically all of our activities.


Interest in social media analytics has been on a steady rise for the past ten years [1] and various data mining tools that record our words, location and behaviour online have emerged. Businesses are including more and more data and analysis from the internet in their decision-making. A study by Economist Intelligence Unit published last year [2] shows that of 476 big business professionals interviewed world-wide, almost half buy and sell data outside their organization.


There is, however, a major threat in taking social data ”as is”, as an all-encompassing representation of human drive and action. Data is not knowledge, as we will attempt to show.




As interest on social data grows and different ways of data gathering become more obvious, people grow more aware of the ways they appear online. As social beings, our brains are constantly working on defining ”who am I” and ”who do I want to be” through social interaction [3, 4, 5, 6]. Sociological studies show [7, 8, 9, 10, 11] that in online communities people often take on different personas, as if role-playing a certain character based only partially on their true identities and personality.


But even in Facebook, where the rules and hierarchies of the community are built to dictate that we should appear as our own selves, study [12] shows that simply the use of the Facebook Like button is a tool for personal impression management, or face work: before we click, we ask ourselves ”how will this make me look?” The more we know our online actions are being tracked, the more we control the signals we let out into the cyberworld of our own digital selves. This brings about the potential of skewing up any study based on social media data that fails to account for this.


Social media data can offer a lot of valuable information for businesses, but companies looking for deep insight into what makes people do what they do should be wary of the limits. Social data can tell a lot about how people are behaving, but that does not directly translate to social knowledge, or what are the people reacting to with their behavior. Such knowledge is only gained through the implementation of information into a cultural framework, a broad understanding of human action.




Even in the age of digitality, you can still learn a lot from studying people face to face. When you look at data on human behaviour online, you have to ask how does it correlate with behaviour offline, and what is the purpose of that behaviour in the first place. This kind of data is what we call thick data. You can read more about it in the [second part] of our essay.


- Jyri Mäkelä & Antti Kiviranta





3. Berger, Peter L. and Thomas Luckmann 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Doubleday.

4. Cooley, Charles [1902] 1964. Human Nature and the Social Order. New York, NY: Scribner’s.

5. Goffman, Erving 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.

6. Mead, George H. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

7. Markham, Annette 1998. Life Online: Researching Real Experience in Virtual Space. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

8. Surratt, Carla G. 1998. Netlife: Internet Citizens and their Communities. New York: Nova Science.

9. Turkle, Sherry 1995. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

10. Waskul, Dennis D 2003. Self-Games and Body-Play: Personhood in Online Chat and Cybersex. New York: Peter Lang.

11. Tapscott, Don 1998. Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill.

12. Eranti, Veikko & Lonkila, Markku 2015. Social significance of Facebook Like Button. First Monday, 20(6).



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