On Wednesday, March 30th, the Department of Communication Studies brought in Ralph Schroeder to discuss Big Data Communication. Schroeder is the Director of the Master’s degree program in Social Science and the Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute in the United Kingdom. He is also the author and/or co-author behind a long list of publications and is currently working on a book about digital media and globalization.

Schroeder shared with his audience his perception of how virtual environments, e-science, and technology plays a role in our society today. Apart from talking about the mass technological advancements in today’s world, he focused primarily on big data – how to quantify it, define it, and explore it in different settings. Schroeder acknowledged the ambiguity of the term, but also reminded the audience that data has been studied for decades. As technological advancements have skyrocketed, the ability to track data has increased exponentially. This has opened the doors for an increased amount of social scientists to track, study, and analyze many forms of data.

Schroeder discussed a famous study done in 2013 by Facebook called the “Experimental Evidence Of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks.” This study, conducted by a Facebook scientist and two academics, used Facebook analytics and an automated system to manipulate the type of posts that came up in individuals news-feeds.

The sample size of the study consisted of 689,003 Facebook users and tracked how the increase in positive Facebook statuses (the hiding of negative posts) impacted the activity on Facebook and vice versa. The study found that more positive posts in people’s news-feeds led to an overall increase in positive postings and vice versa with negative posts. This type of test used big data as a channel to study a massive amount of people. Without a social website like Facebook with an abundance of diverse users, this study wouldn’t have been possible. Studies using big data like Facebook have exploded since the technological boom over a decade ago. Schroeder informed his audience that social scientists are crawling the web to study big data and are thus able to do analysis on large scales. The availability of big data allows for massive digital examination that has the ability to “spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime and so on” (economist.com).

After discussing the Facebook experiment, Schroeder reminded us that we leave digital traces everywhere, “we google everything, our phones can track where we are, and digital devices know what kind of coffee we drink and our favorite topics to search.” This all accumulates to big data. Everything we do digitally makes up some component of big data information.

Although the entire topic of discussion was big data, Schroeder said that no one has concisely defined “big data” on a linear scale. He said that data depends on context and without context there is no data. He left his audience with his own personal definition of big data which follows, “‘Big data’ is the advance of knowledge via a leap in the scale and scope in relation to a given object or phenomenon.”