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How Big Is Social Media And Does It Really Count As 'Big Data'? Posted on : Feb 12 - 2019

Social media has become synonymous with “big data” thanks to its widespread availability and stature as a driver of the global conversation. Its massive size, high update speed and range of content modalities are frequently cited as a textbook example of just what constitutes “big data” in today’s data drenched world. However, if we look a bit closer, is social media really that much larger than traditional data sources like journalism?

We hold up social media platforms today as the epitome of “big data.” However, the lack of external visibility into those platforms means that nearly all of our assessments are based on the hand picked statistics those companies choose to report to the public and the myriad ways those figures, such as “active users,” are constantly evolved to reflect the rosiest image possible of the growth of social media as a whole.

Much of our reverence for social platforms comes from the belief that their servers hold an unimaginably large archive of global human behavior. But is that archive that much larger than the mediums that precede it like traditional journalism?

Facebook announced its first large research dataset last year, consisting of “a petabyte of data with almost all public URLs Facebook users globally have clicked on, when, and by what types of people.” Despite its petabyte stature, the actual number of rows was estimated to be relatively small. In all, the dataset was projected to contain just 30 billion rows when it was announced, growing at a rate of just 2 million unique URLs across 300 million posts per week, once completed.

To many researchers, 30 billion rows sounds like an extraordinary amount of data that they couldn’t possibly analyze in their lifetime. By modern standards, however, 30 billion records is a fairly tiny dataset and the petabyte as a benchmark of “big data” is long passé.

In fact, my own open data GDELT Project has compiled a database of more than 85 billion outlinks from worldwide news outlet homepages since March 2018, making it 2.8 times larger than Facebook’s dataset in just half the time.

Compared to news media, social media isn’t necessarily that much larger. It is merely that we have historically lacked the tools to treat news media as big data. In contrast, social media has aggressively marketed itself as “big data” from the start, with data formats and API mechanisms designed to maximize its accessibility to modern analytics. View More