Guest Post By Steve Hartsoe, Office of News & Communications

“While social network analysts 20 years ago struggled with networks of hundreds of nodes, we now routinely face networks of hundreds of thousands,” according to James Moody, a Duke sociology professor and director of the school’s Network Analysis Center.

James Moody analyzes networks.

Moody, who was studying social networks long before they became a movie title, says that the abundance of material now available has created new opportunities to test scientific models for cultural behavior. But that growth has also generated a need for new tools and investments in computational social science.

He was one of the featured speakers at an April 26 symposium in Chapel Hill called “Social Networks. Analysis: Opportunities and Realities.” The event also featured  speakers from Duke’s Social Science Research Institute, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Odom Institute for Social Science Research, and the iLab at North Carolina A&T State University.

A common thread was how to adapt to the abundance of information now available via the Web, and how to make the best use of high-tech tools for analyzing social networks.

Moody urged the audience to stay focused and consider the merits of working with smaller samples. He also told participants to think of social networks as simply “people embedded in a context.”

An image from one of Moody's earlier studies on social networks.

“There’s a lot of data out there, but a lot of that data doesn’t answer the question you want to answer, right?” Moody said. “So I think there’s a data-question mismatch in some cases.”

Moody also stressed the importance of using the right tools for analyzing social networks. “Don’t trade a good idea for a bad instrument,” he said. “Global networking tools can easily apply to a network of 20 or 30 nodes.”

Speaking remotely via an audio feed, John Haaga, deputy director at the National Institute on Aging, urged researchers seeking federal funding to follow a basic tenet for hitters in baseball: Start smaller “and then swing for the fences.”

More than one attendee in the rapid-fire, three-hour discussion likened it to being on the receiving end of a fire hose of information.