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Year In Review

Exploring Digital Transformation


The gap between technological progression and human evolution grows wider as new developments like artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics have profound impacts on societies and economies. The MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) is “shaping a brighter digital future.”

“Every day at the IDE, we engage with marketing executives to understand the networked economy to meet consumers’ needs,” says Sinan Aral, PhD ’07 (David Austin Professor of Management, Marketing, IT and Data Science; Director, MIT IDE). “As a result, we are upending conventional approaches and strategies.”

For the IDE, 2022 was a banner year. In March, technology and policy experts and more than 12,000 virtual attendees convened for the second annual Social Media Summit@MIT to examine the growing impact of social media on the world’s democracies, economies, and public health policies. Four months later, the Platform Strategy Summit reconvened in person after two years of virtual programming for its 10th anniversary. More than 350 participants gathered at the MIT Media Lab to examine the past, present, and future of digital platforms—including healthcare platforms. The Conference on Digital Experimentation closed out 2022 in October with over 350 researchers from academia and industry discussing the most significant innovations in modern social science.

The IDE is also the center of several significant research projects. In a September issue of Science, Aral and his coauthors published “A Causal Test of the Strength of Weak Ties,” an analysis of data from multiple large-scale randomized experiments on LinkedIn’s People You May Know algorithm over five years. They focused on weak ties in networks of over 20 million people and produced results providing causal evidence supporting the strength of weak ties.

“The strength of weak ties is one of the most influential social theories of the last five decades, but until now no comprehensive experimental causal tests of this theory existed as it relates to employment,” says Aral. “More than ever, people are using social media platforms to find jobs, search for better jobs, or switch industries entirely.”

Additionally, David Rand (Erwin H. Schell Professor; Professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences), who leads the IDE’s Misinformation & Fake News Research Group, conducted a megastudy with several coauthors testing 25 interventions designed to reduce anti-democratic attitudes and partisan animosity among Americans. Contrary to expectations, nearly every selected intervention significantly reduced partisan animosity.

“The growth in misleading rhetoric from U.S. congressional candidates on topics such as election integrity has put renewed pressure on social media platforms ahead of [elections],” Rand explains, adding that their findings can provide a toolkit for practitioners and shed new theoretical light on the challenges facing American democracy.

In June, Renée Richardson Gosline (Senior Lecturer, Marketing; Research Scientist, IDE), who leads the Human-First AI Research Group, published “Why AI Customer Journeys Need More Friction” in Harvard Business Review. “Friction isn’t always a bad thing,” wrote Gosline. “The trick is learning to differentiate good friction from bad, and to understand when and where adding good friction to your customer journey can give customers the agency and autonomy to improve choice.”

Over the summer, the IDE launched a new podcast, The Digital Insider with Sinan Aral, which takes a deep dive into how the digital economy operates. Notable guests so far include Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, MSNBC host Ali Velshi, and business guru Scott Galloway. Digital Insider is already a “Top 20” podcast in the U.S.

“As the digital economy heats up, so do the efforts of the IDE,” says David Verrill, SM ’87 (Executive Director, MIT IDE). “We are ahead of the curve with our cutting-edge research and science-based experimentation about social media, marketing, and technology. Our community continues to expand.”

Credit: Matejmo | iStock by Getty

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