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.