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.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Backchannel Communication & Homophily

As I am bored to death in the flight back to Tempe from New York City (happens to be a five and half hour long cross-country journey), I thought I might just use this opportunity to write. Today, sitting at JFK I was amused to read this blog post by Danah Boyd on how the sense of being "connected" at every moment is changing our ways of interaction in the real world. She talks about the perception of "backchannel communication" in public environments and how the acts of tweeting, blogging, wiki-ing makes a one-sided conversation more engaging. The article clearly can be controvertial, but as a person born in the early eighties and a person who actually saw the entire "Internet" buzz bloom since teen age, would certainly be able to connect with her thoughts!

As Danah says while she is in a lecture / talk, she would carry along her laptop and pick up the points which are not-so-clear from the presenter and / or gather more intensive information related to the topic, or even tweet about it to understand the opinions of her social network, I am at a point where I think I can justify similar acts I have indulged in, in the past.

Since I was in high school, I always hated taking notes in classes. My idea was that, if there are something I really didn't know, or I thought I should keep in mind, I ought to be able to remember it anyways. It was kind of arrogant / crude / bad information management you might say, but that's how things have been working out for me. However, once I came to grad school, I felt obliged to change my principle a little bit! I still wouldn't take notes, instead carry my laptop, and as with Danah, would look up / read relevant or useful information that was being dispensed in the course lectures. It worked out pretty okay.

Today, with no courses left to deal with (!), I often route my inquisitveness / doubts / questions / brain-storming ideas over one of these social media sites. Two of the most useful and successful backchannel modes of communication that I have come across with are the Facebook status updates, and IM (Google Talk) status updates. And fortunately, I have often received very immediate flurry of responses about those questions from my social network!

My point here is however, not to reinforce the culture of backchannel communication. Rather the point that sort of intrigues me is that the ways we consume information has radically changed over the years - from the high school taking-notes-lecture days to today's way of asking a question to your network via your Facebook status. There seems to be a lot of hue and cry about the propagation / diffusion of information in all these social networks, but the point I am trying to make here is that even our modes of consuming that diffused information has changed drastically.

Nevertheless, the more sort of research question that still remains unanswered is that why do some of these forms of backchannel communication create a chatter, while some just faze away? Of course, the simplest answer is that for certain topics there exists homophily between you and a significant segment of your network. However when I conducted a simple experiment to validate this by posting a very "research-specific" question as my Facebook status, I was surprised to see that many of the comments were actually not at all from people who seems to experts in the topic! Do what role does homophily play in promoting effective backchannel communication that Danah talks about? More fundamentally, does homophily (or the idea that your friends are "like" you) actually make sense in today's social-media-rich culture? I don't quite know the answer yet - but I am inclined to believing that multiple modes of interaction are likely to promote backchannel communication in different manner and possibly for different subsets of your social network. Some of which might actually not have any homophily with you at all!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


I remember writing a blog post sometime back on the phenomenon of symmetry that characterizes our social lives and actions. This was a time prior to when I started working on the "social synchrony" problem back in last December. It's interesting on how on the same note, I am interested in the phenomenon of asymmetry, so apparent in the social relationships we inculcate in our lives!

Characterizing relationships in online social networks is of my current research interest; and I plan to look at it from the manner individuals communicate over these different media. However as most of the literature in the social sciences goes, people have mostly considered undirected edges, that is, assuming relationships are symmetric. While this can be useful to simplify the network representation, or to compute elegant network features, I am driven by my simple life experiences; and the experiences that say that 99% of the time relationships are not symmetric!

Sometime back, I heard someone saying that in a non-platonic relationship, one person always has the upper hand than the other; and that one person has the upper hand to terminate it over the other, i.e. is in a more advantageous position than the other; and also that the implications of termination are likely to be worse to one compared to the other. I don't have a good reason to think otherwise. I think while this is most true about non-platonic relationships, there could be validating evidences in most other relationships, like parents-kids, brother-sister, employee-employer etc, however good friends you can mutually be!

In current state-of-the-art, unfortunately relationships in social networks, have been over-simplified, especially when it comes to characterizing them. I would imagine that though Alice and Bob both label each other as "friends" on Facebook, it is likely that the properties of that friendship are not symmetrical to each. Such asymmetry can for example, be explicitly found in their communication patterns or can be implicit in evidences like who is more likely to follow the other - revealing sort of a dependency relationship from Alice to Bob, which might not be the case from Bob to Alice. These are just some brain-storming thoughts of characterizing the asymmetry. There could be more...

Basically this thought springs from two causes, and both of which interestingly clicked to me today in the train back home: (a) that most of the times relationships have been quite asymmetric for me, the context being different every time, and (b) social ties have rather been poorly characterized so far - we need a more realistic model that captures the directional dynamics between a pair of people, specifically based on their communication and their actions in the social front.

However, finally while I do think modeling the asymmetry is useful, how is homophily, i.e. the fact that you and your friends are alike in some manner, related to this asymmetry? Maybe a future post!

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Canvass of Complex Relationships; Facebook, Twitter and More!

One of the most amazing, but complex aspects of our lives is the fact that we invariably indulge in constantly evolving relationships with others. We mature, we develop new ones, sever some of the old ones, while move on from certain others. In other words, relationships mean to us a lot more than a binary outcome of "presence" or "absence". Sometimes some relationships to us just pause, they are neither continued nor broken.

There has been a lot of hue and cry over the Web in the recent past over Twitter and Facebook. And how they are getting more and more intertwined with our lives today. And also how they could possibly take over our entire notion of social presence. And also sometimes how maintaining profile and activity on each of them can be monotonous, tedious and time-consuming. However, I think that these online social networks have a long way to go to actually reflect our social lives transparently. Or at least computational social science, as a research field, is yet to acknowledge several of the complex manner in which networks evolve in practice, and in particular characterizing the complex social relationships embedded in our daily lives.

Come to think about the point I raised earlier in this blog - that social relationships evolve thereby impacting the way networks as a whole evolve. Unfortunately, computational social science so far, looks at network evolution merely at the level of a binary variable - relationships emerge and relationships die. However, in my view, a much more comprehensive understanding of the relationships needs to be accounted for in these social networks / media like Facebook and Twitter. I am sure each one of us would agree that several of the relationships with people on our Facebook profiles have changed from the time we made them "friends". Unfortunately, there is no way to account for these changes on the social network itself.

A possible way to understand evolving relationships could be to look at the explicit mentions of changes - e.g. two people mentioning each other in the "In a Relationship" field on Facebook. Or sometimes even implicitly - e.g. communication patterns. But still, there could be several unforeseen instances which might account for the evolution of a relationship.

My hypothetical solution would be to consider the dynamics of communication and other user activities across different social media. As we all would agree, our presence on different social network serve different purposes, so does our social roles change across each of them. Hence a change likely to trigger the evolution of a relationship might get reflected on one social network, while might remain rather passive on the other. A comprehensive modeling of our multi-modal actions and multi-modal communication, I believe, can explain greatly the complexity of evolution of relationships in reality.

Hopefully this would be a segment of my research this year! Look forward to it. As always, driven by life experiences, and motivated by the plethora of bliss showered on us by the Web in particular, and Computer Science in general! Cheers to "computational social science" :)