There are times in life when you all of a sudden get to see a familiar sight in such a novel angle it can get a bit dizzying. Consider the humble concept of the survey; researchers who need to tap into the opinion of a community of people, traditionally have set out with a well thought-out survey questionnaire and have gone knocking on doors. A survey done on a modest sample size of even 1000 respondents is usually considered thorough, for the practical difficulties involved in even such conservative attempts.

But here we have social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter today – websites that brim with exactly the kind of information that researchers look for, and from millions of respondents at that. There are people from every kind of demographic, social level and educational background to be found, and they all like to share their hearts out about what they think of every topic under the sun. What is more, what you find on social networking sites are voluntary, are people’s honest opinions and are words that they put out with little thought; in other words, the choice of words and the casual sharing of thoughts to be found here is likely to be more honest than any survey can hope for. The question is, how is this wealth of information to be put to use to something really significant?

There is already evidence that research done with Facebook and Twitter information as raw fodder, is likely to reward sociologists with radical new insights into society: what people really think when they get married or before and they get divorced, what they talk to friends about, about a movie, and so on. The French government is reported to be experimenting with using social networking information to judge the happiness of their society as a measure of national progress, just like they measure their GDP. Google is known to try to interpret the tons of data that passes through its servers in useful ways; but for social networking sites to do the same is a new development. Some wonder if this gives them too much power.