Duncan Watts suggests (Nature 445, 489; 1 February 2007) that "If handled appropriately, data about Internet-based communication and interactivity could revolutionize our understanding of collective human behaviour."
The social sciences "have been much less successful than the physical and life sciences in producing a coherent theoretical framework that can account for their discoveries. This is not because social scientists are less clever than their peers in other fields, but because social phenomena are among the hardest scientific problems to solve."
"For the past 50 years or so, sociologists have thought deeply about the importance of interactions between people, institutions and markets in determining collective social behaviour. They have even built a language — network analysis — to describe these interactions in quantitative terms. But the objects of analysis, such as friendship ties, are hard to observe, especially for large numbers of people over extended periods of time. As a result, network data have historically comprised one-time snapshots, often for quite small groups. And most studies have relied on self-reports from participants, which suffer from cognitive biases, errors of perception and framing ambiguities."
"The striking proliferation over the past decade of Internet-based communication and interactivity, however, is beginning to lift these constraints. For the first time, we can begin to observe the real-time interactions of millions of people at a resolution that is sensitive to effects at the level of the individual. Meanwhile, ever-faster computers permit us to simulate large networks of social interactions. The result has been tremendous interest in social networks: thousands of papers and a growing number of books have been published in less than a decade, leading some to herald the arrival of a 'science of networks'."