Experiments in the Digital Age

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In the digital age, are our experiments, such as the standard randomized controlled experiments, digital too?

In a word, argues sociologist Matthew Salganik of Princeton University, yes.

“In the past,…all experiments were analog experiments, and now more and more can take advantage of digital infrastructure. What are digital experiments? I would say an experiment is more digital to the extent that you use digital infrastructure in the four main steps of experiments: in recruiting participants, randomization, delivering treatment and measuring outcomes.”

His description is part of the video below, the last in a series of four videos synthesizing some of the important themes covered at 2016’s second International Conference on Computational Social Science, or IC2S2.

Salganik, the author of Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age, has ties to a number of interdisciplinary research centers at Princeton, including the Office for Population Research, the Center for Information Technology Policy, the Center for Health and Wellbeing, and the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning. In the video, he offers two – or really two-and-a-half – approaches to creating a ‘digital’ experiment..

You can partner with industry or another nonscientific partner like an NGO, which can shift the financial burden at the cost of some control.

Or, you proceed on your own: “You do not have to partner with anyone to do it. You can do it yourself,” Salganik stresses, adding a DIY refinement. Or you can do the experiment yourself — after you’ve built your own product “and then you can use that for repeated experimentation.”

Salganik closes his remarks with a discussion of research ethics, something he sees as increasingly important to keep front and center as big data allows the rapid scale-up of research. “As a community, I see the kinds of things that we can do increasing really quickly, and I hope that along with that comes an increasing sense of responsibility for what it is that we can do.”


The annual IC2S2, hosted by the Kellogg School of Management in 2016, convenes interdisciplinary researchers to discover, discuss, and collaborate at the intersection of data science and social science. This video is a sample of what IC2S2 attendees experience during this multi-day event. The third IC2S2 conference took place in Cologne, Germany  in July and the fourth IC2S2 will be hosted at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University from July 12-15, 2018. For more information, visit ic2s2.org.


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