Friday, March 26, 2010

A Research Conversation

Not blogging enough; but here's a cool different way I just thought about my research while chatting with a friend over Google Talk. I am just pasting the interesting part!

Me: The title of my presentation is: "How Birds of a Feather Flock Together on Online Social Spaces".
Friend: So whats the conclusion?
Me: Yes they do; but depends on the context.
Friend: There is a but there; things are not certain?
Me: Well there a bit detail in it; so "flocking together" is called "homophily"; and homophily can exist due to several different user attributes such as "being phd students" is one, or on a more serious note, e.g. ethnicity, gender, location, activity behavior. Homophily can exist along any or more of these dimensions. So the conclusion is: birds of a feather indeed flock together on online social spaces, but along which dimension they wud flock, often depends upon what kind of a social action these people are accomplishing online e.g. to find a good restaurant the homophily dimension is likely to be location while to understand a technical concept it cud be your colleagues.
Friend: Perhaps a life outside of online networks is not different? What's special about online?
Me: Life online is slightly different; in the sense our physical world lives mostly center around micro networks i.e. our small set of 20 friends. So very likely these people are similar to us in more than one dimension. But online we often tend to bridge across multiple dimensionalities with people extremely diverse in nature; especially when we get engaged in transmitting different "internet memes"; or the way these days we consume information, say RSS Feeds. These make our interactions highly global in nature. Though embedded in a small set of our "online friends" we tend to develop "shortcuts" or bridges across people who are essentially part of the larger macro network; making our online lives quite drastically different from our social engagement in the physical world.

The reason I like this conversation is because it justifies the point of my thesis hypothesis, i.e. why it is important to study social interactions that exist in online environments. Rest would follow after I am done with the comprehensive exam questions. I have a few very interesting ones so far; so hopefully more cool thoughts and insights in the coming days until the proposal defense time!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Social Media + Credit Score? Please No!

Since quite a while I had been wanting to write this particular blog post related to some of the news making rounds on the Internet, that, your activity on different social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter are used by the credit card companies to effect, in some way, your credit score. Though note that the company focusing on "computational advertising" on similar lines has denied such news (rumors) on their blog.

However I have been thinking on this issue quite a bit. Even if it's being done hypothetically sometime somewhere, is it an appropriate thing to do, given the affordances of these online social sites? To take an example, I felt it completely thrown away by the idea that our activities on an online space such as Facebook or Twitter could even remotely be correlated with serious physical world aspects, that are likely to have serious and widespread consequences.

For example, if not Facebook, most of us would agree that our Twitter friends or even our tweets are often not reflective of the actual person we are, or the kinds of things we might take seriously in real life. I follow several people on Twitter, and even presumably respond or RT their tweets. But should you ask me how much I really know about those guys, apart from the content of their tweets, or the number of followers they have, I really have zero clue! Similarly, also, though Facebook tries to organize user profile around common social foci, i.e. common organizational affiliations, and as a result our friend circles are often a projection of our real social ties; however it is far away from being reflective in any sense of what kind of a person we are in physical world. I would often comment on or share items from someone who is possibly just an "acquaintance" from a course I took a long time ago in early graduate school. However, if someone is trying to sneak in and use these interactions or the kinds of friends I have to make real world judgments for me, it would be utterly disappointing!

I am not trying to take away the utility of online social media in this post. After all, it's what is my research "testbed" and I am completely a "pro" social media lover! But the reason I find social media most interesting is hardly because they are some sort of "projections" of our physical world online spaces. Rather what I find really interesting as well as challenging in the scope of the interactions in these online social spaces, is how they are shaping our entire perception of socially communicating altogether! Additionally, as you would feel, the definition of a "friend" on social media has a completely different perception than what we mean by it in reality!

Nevertheless not trying to produce here evidences that studying social media has no utility to our actual lives at all! In fact, studying these online behavior could have significant impact on how our perceptions of social ties are changing, and how our modalities of interactions have evolved due to the presence of these diverse media. This can be valuable to study social phenomena, both virtual and physical. However my skepticism still stands aforth to utilize such knowledge towards making decisions that can potentially affect a person's life extremely adversely.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

How "Birds of a Feather Flock Together" on Online Social Spaces

This post is among my first attempts to talk about my research and a specific problem of interest to a generic audience. Your comments are welcome!

A primary domain of interest to social researchers through several decades has been the study of interpersonal communication among groups of individuals. Communication is central to the evolution of social systems. Hence the monotonic surge of interest springs from the potential of such communication impacting variegated social processes: such as propagation of influence, evolution of communities and so on.

Typically studies geared towards understanding these social processes via communication, until a few years back, have essentially been cross-sectional in nature, often based on participant observations and surveys on relatively small sets of people. However, the advent of the "social web" over the past decade is providing researchers with newer ways to validate their hypotheses on large-scale data. For example, the Web 2.0 technologies today have provided considerable leeway to a rich rubric of platforms that promote multifaceted user interactions on shared spaces. The resultant impact of these plethora of social websites such as Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Digg, Facebook and the Blogosphere have been widespread. Right from shopping a new car, to getting suggestions on investment, searching for the next holiday destination or even planning their next meal out, people have started to rely heavily on opinions expressed online or social resources that can provide them with useful insights into the diversely available set of options.

My research spans the study of large-scale social processes on such online platform, an area that has popularly begun to be known as "computational social sciences". This post deals with the specific problem of understanding, modeling and analyzing how information propagates in a "network" of individuals, via a certain mode of communication. Today, because electronic social data can be collected at comparatively low cost of acquisition and resource maintenance, can span over diverse populations and be acquired over extended time periods, it provides a rich and broad test bed to understand the social process of information diffusion.

Specifically, in this context, I present the impact of the "homophily" principle on information diffusion in social media. The homophily principle states that users in a social system tend to bond more with ones who are "similar" to them than ones who are dissimilar. Hence homophily structures networks: people's ego-centric social networks are often homogeneous with regard to diverse social, demographic, behavioral, and intra-personal characteristics or revolve around social foci such as co-location or commonly situated activities. The existence of such homogeneity, i.e. homophily is therefore likely to impact the information these individuals receive and propagate and the communication activities they engage in.

In our work, we consider communication occurring via posts on the popular micro-blogging service Twitter and investigate the relationship between homophily among users and the social process of diffusion. We particularly study four kind of contextual attributes on Twitter: location, activity behavior, social role and activity distribution. Thereafter we predict diffusion characteristics under homophily on these attributes based on a novel probabilistic framework. Our experimental results on a large dataset from Twitter have been promising, and reveals how "similarity breeds connection" in a social network.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sip of a Very Beautiful Dream

The smell of the fresh chilling breeze, and the smoothing veil of the morning sunshine,
The mystic mountains afar gleaming every moment like bricks numerous, and some blush wine,
The wavering branches, the chirping birds, the rustling leaves: all making me soar on cloud nine,
But deep down some corner; some memories riding fast the winding roads in thoughts of mine.

The first pretty Winter blossom still desirous of standing amidst the blowing wind,
The dark shadow on the rustic walls of the parched paint in the walls that lean,
A blazing blue ray of hope shining at every nook and corner of the next passerby thinking it would someday win,
I sit here, peeping out of the window, witnessing a beautiful world with a sip of a very beautiful dream!

These days my schedule has been fortunate enough to allow me stay awake through the morning sunrise. A rare and mystical event that periodically showcases itself everyday, I am glad to enjoy different aspects of mother Nature in all its breadth. The mildly chilly Winter, and the advent of the comfortable times in Arizona has made me cherish Nature and life at large in a different way which I probably haven't had the opportunity to do in all the times in grad. school. Likely the last academic year here at ASU, this poem tries to captures the breezes and the storms in my mind---with a pinch of the bad times, the much-cherished good times and the uncertainty and the hope for the near future ahead. Many cheers, nevertheless, to the beautiful world we all are a part of!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Barack and His Nobel, and What It Means To Me

Despite good referrals from many friends and acquaintances, I never gathered enough time and opportunity to read one of the best-sellers in the non-fiction category in recent times; that is, Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope. Nevertheless, for reasons beyond just inquisitiveness in the last Presidential elections (read, I was using the election 2008 trends as a part of my research involving communication in the Blogosphere), I always found that there was something about this guy; something which was bound to make you hopeful for your own future, something that is bound to create a stir in your mind.

Enough has been said and written about this intriguing personality, who after a very interesting journey, became the President of the United States back this January. I always felt a lot was expected of him. I felt that he must be under tremendous pressure to perform, because of the realm of expectations all of us had on him, and apart from acquiring the highest office in the most powerful country, at a point in time which was harder than ever - thanks to the economic times as bad as the Great Depression of the 1930s. I haven't followed him much ever since, but I kept on getting news about his health care plans, opinions on Middle East, and so on.

Today at around 2:30am in the night, I get this news (from Twitter, which is currently my primary news source) that he got the Nobel Peace Prize. Somehow I am able to relate to this event more than anything else; I feel its more of an encouragement to me than a shock or a surprise.

Since the past few weeks, my PhD has been going hard and rocky - reasons being starting from when I should graduate, to the job situation, to looking for faculty positions, post-docs etc, etc. I have been spending many a nights and days being sort of depressed, and thinking about various alternatives possible before and after graduation. At this point in time, the news of him getting the Nobel Peace under very surprising contexts somehow brings in some ray of hope in my morose life of late.

I think he is a guy who has literally proved how someone can rise up by leaps and bounds despite all odds. Everyone knows of the necessity of perseverance, but it's something very hard to implement. Everyone knows that the ultimate philosophy of life, is that one should never think of the outcome, just keep putting your best efforts, but it has never been this easy. But today when I see this guy, I feel like starting to believe in life and the world all over again. I feel rejuvenated that probably I can tackle these tough times with ease and courage. Makes me start to feel invigorated all over again, and start yearning for doing good work, as I have been doing all the while. And also be zealous and hopeful of the outcomes. Precisely, have hopes that are audacious enough to bring in the laurels eventually. After all, life is what we make it :)

Finally, Nobel is something that has always inspired me at different times and walks in life; whether it was back in 1992 as a little girl going to 4th grade and wanting to be the next scientist, or be it a morose PhD student in 2009 trying to make her way in her career through some hard road-blocks. I think this Nobel, at this time, has helped me bring back the smile I have been long longing for. Thanks Nobel, and of course, congratulations Barack :) To quote, as he said in his famous 2004 Democratic Convention:

Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"...that one awesome thing that can change the world"

My busy life since the past several months has almost taken away the fact that I used to have a blog to maintain. I still remember the times back in late 2007 and almost all of 2008 when this blog used to be a way to vent my primary line of thought - probably as a get away from the complexities of life, its thoughts, emotions and other associated processes :). Life has taken several interesting turns ever since, especially this year, that I realize as I look back; and things which weren't too apparent when they were taking place :).

One of those myriad happenings is that I have begun to get a taste of my PhD thesis! It's amazingly interesting to see how an assimilated collection of several problems can actually tackle multiple dimensions of a larger research goal. Things before, during and after my internship at Yahoo! Research have also mostly been red and rosy; amidst incredible hard work all summer and some exciting fun times with sumptuous food in and around New York City. People around are now asking and telling me about graduating in or around the next one year, but I don't think I am ready for that yet.

This brings up the more philosophical question - when do you really think you have a PhD thesis? When is it that you think you are "done" and ready to get out and fight the larger arena of some exciting research? When are you placated by your own work? Of course I am not talking of the thousands of contextual circumstances that might hurry your graduation - for example, advisor's suggestion, shortage of funds, availability of a job you like, getting settled with your significant other, desire to move to some place for "other" reasons and so on. I am talking when do you think it comes from your very inside that you are ready to graduate?

I don't have an answer and I am looking for one. However since day one of my PhD I knew there was one reason I was doing all this, going through all the social ordeal, going against what friends are doing with their lives or even leading an extremely unusual life. And that reason was the desire to make a difference to the world in general and the research area in particular. I think the day I feel I have accomplished "that one awesome thing that can change the world", I think it'll spring from my inside that I am ready to graduate; ready to take on the crusade towards another even tougher, even more exciting than ever journey in the sands of space and time! :)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Fall Trips - Seattle & Vancouver

For those who care, I was in Seattle for a couple of days, en route to Vancouver, Canada for SocialCom 2009. My talk's tomorrow - so fully geared! I leave Canada on Tuesday and the following day fly over to San Jose. I am going to attend the Key Scientific Challenge summit,, Yahoo! Research, wherein I have a poster presentation and a talk! Exciting week ahead!

In the meanwhile, cherished the opportunity to visit Microsoft, Redmond - thanks to a friend who works there. I must say, I liked the campus - especially Microsoft Research :) Here's a pic. Also, went up the Space Needle in Seattle; it was nice but not probably as exciting - it was like the n-th time I was going up a sky-high man-made object; some of them being Empire State Building, Sears Tower and Eiffel Tower.

Updates from Vancouver awaited - probably would check out the downtown and the harbor-side tonight! Until then, take care.