Information in Digital, Economic and Social Networks

  • Sinan Aral
  • Gal Oestreicher-Singer
  • Foster Provost
  • Arun Sundararajan

Digital technologies have made networks ubiquitous.  A growing body of research is examining these networks to gain a better understanding of how firms interact with their consumers, how people interact with each other, and how current and future digital artifacts will continue to alter business and society.  The increasing availability of massive networked data has led to several streams of inquiry across fields as diverse as computer science, economics, information systems, marketing, physics, and sociology.  Each of these research streams asks questions that at their core involve “information in networks”—its distribution, its diffusion, its inferential value, and its influence on social and economic outcomes.  We suggest a broad direction for research into social and economic networks.  Our analysis describes four kinds of investigation that seem most promising.  The first studies how information technologies create and reveal networks whose connections represent social and economic relationships.  The second examines the content that flows through networks and its economic, social, and organizational implications.  A third develops theories and methods to understand and utilize the rich predictive information contained in networked data.  A final area of inquiry focuses on network dynamics and how information technology affects network evolution.  We conclude by discussing several important cross-cutting issues with implications for all four research streams, which must be addressed if the ensuing research is to be both rigorous and relevant.  We also describe how these directions of inquiry are interconnected: results and ideas will pollinate across them, leading to a new cumulative research tradition.