My undergrad degree is in social science so I love reading stories like this one about Yahoo adding social scientists in its Labs. They now have approximately 25 social scientists on the team and it is still the smallest group within the research division, but it is the fastest growing.
Whilst studying I learned an incredible amount about how to understand myself, other people, small groups and larger institutions – understanding which I still find helpful today – but the difficulty with validating theory empirically (you can’t experiment on humans) and the lack of practical application of theory was always a bit frustrating. That is now changing – social media is in many ways one huge social science experiment and the best companies are employing insights garnered from social science to build great services.
At the level of Yahoo that can mean employing teams of social scientists but for startups you can get a long way by being live for the issue and reading the right books and blogs. Danah Boyd (now working at Microsoft) and Tara Hunt are two social scientists actively writing about social media who I have written about previously on this blog – posts mentioning Danah can be found here, and Tara here.
I titled this post ‘social science is the science of the future’ because in many ways this is the area in which it is easiest for internet startups to differentiate themselves. Physical science and good engineering is of course still important, and writing great code still generates a competitive edge, but it is great product design which really separates the winners from the losers, and product design is where social science really comes into its own. In fact the power of social science is increasing every year as entrepreneurs seek to thrill us by appealing to our innermost needs and desires by building increasingly social applications – something that is only happening now all our basic needs are satisfied (hunger, health, safety) and that we have the internet.