Immediately before I sat down to write this blog, I was attending a lecture on Social Influence Analysis and Social Prediction by Dr Jie Tang, Tsinghua University, Beijing.  He is an associate professor of computer science.  Naturally, I was fascinated by his insights into the dynamics of social networks, such as how an individual user can influence others’ behaviours.

His study shows that about 90% of the human emotions are predictable, through social network mining, text mining, statistical learning, and semantic web searching.  How scary is that?

Such research is right on the cusp of the field of human communication, where science and art collide.

What I didn’t anticipate was the need to recall my own early science degree to follow Jie Tang’s explanation of his factor graph model for creating mathematical formulae that could learn by themselves.  But it is that very connection between maths and psychology that enables researchers to quantify social influence and the correlation between influence and social actions.

So I sat there fascinated by the creation of algorithms, which we so blithely talk about, but don’t always fully appreciate.  The equations on the screen looked like the chemistry of a nuclear bomb, and offered a glimpse of their potential to provide a similarly massive explosion in our analysis of mobile social networks to predict human emotion.

While AUT University is part of this marvellous open dialogue in the field of creative technology, social media are still being restricted in China itself.  Google has been displaced by the Chinese search engine "Baidu" which seeks to emulate Bing or Google inside China’s physical borders.  Firstly, the Chinese government set out to control Google: Now they have a search site which they can control.

Also in China, Youtube has effectively been replaced by Youku, which has 1,500 license holders, including television and film companies in that country regularly uploading content. 

Youku's video library includes many full length, popular films and TV episodes from the West, which can be viewed outside China only on Youku, since copyright restrictions prevent Youtube and others from broadcasting them.  Ironically, while thumbing its nose at western copyright law, Youku has its own strict rules on pornography and for content that the Chinese government finds politically objectionable. 

Furthermore, Youku has implemented a digital fingerprinting technology which is says is intended to eliminate copyright infringing content on the site.  It also sounds like a way of keeping a close eye on users.

Meanwhile, in the West, computer scientists at the University of Washington are reversing the “eye of God” on the internet.  They have created a way to put expiration dates on ea-mail, chat messages and Facebook postings, according to Futurist, Nov-Dec 2009: p.2.

Their software, called “Vanish”, encrypts the messages and spreads the data among different computers on the file-sharing network.  As people use the network, the portions of encryption are spread around to untraceable users making the original message indecipherable.

One of the benefits of Vanish will be for the artists among us who may express our emotions impulsively only to discover that they remain as an eternal record of our immoderation.  We should thank our scientific peers for this offer of a future where we can expunge our digital trails.  Of course, art in its other forms can and should remain preserved for ever.

Indeed, art provides the postscript to this blog, as Wikipedia tells us the delightful origin of the name “Baidu” is from an 800-year-old Chinese poem which says: “Having searched for him hundreds and thousands of times in the crowd, suddenly turning back by chance, I find him there in the dimmest candlelight”…. beautiful.


 This Blog recently reported that Google has bought Metaweb for its open-source database, Freebase, with 12 million web “entities”, from science to celebrities. 

Now it is time to question where this will lead, or more specifically, where the semantic web will allow us to lead each other.

The thing about Freebase is that it tags items so that computers can understand what they are about, and then relate them to each other by meaning.  Freebase enables the whole web to behave a bit like GetGlue which allows users to rate things or discover new popular choices by finding out what their friends enjoy.

One shudders to think what semantic tags will do to the existing  imbalance between popularity and reliability of information on the internet.  Research already shows that we tend to follow each other like lemmings racing towards a cliff.

Adding to concern about the influence on popularity on credibility was an article in New Scientist (24 July, 2010) which demonstrated again what is sometimes called the “band-wagon effect” or even the ghost of “group-think”. 

The article asserts that sociologists have been searching for laws governing human interactions and social networks for decades, but now the world’s 500-million users of social media are providing researchers with a living laboratory. 

Duncan Watts of Yahoo Research and Matthew Salganik, now at Princeton University used a web-based experiment to demonstrate that when it comes to music preference, we behave like sheep (or lemmings).

To examine what made some songs more popular than others, they created a project they called Music Lab.  It used a website where more than 14,000 people could rate 48 relatively unknown songs.  They compared the opinions of experts with those of amateurs and measured downloads to assess a tunes popularity. 

They also cloaked the information some of the respondents received    to show that the number of people choosing a song influenced others into selecting the same one.  That is, human influence had a major effect on making some songs more successful. 

“So, like it or not, it seems that many of us follow the herd,” (New Scientist, 24 July 2010: p. 32).

This doesn’t only apply to something as familiar as popular music.  Even choices that require knowledge and expertise can be driven by mob-behaviour. 

For instance, by using Facebook researchers, Jukka-Pekka Onnela and Felix Reed-Tochas of the University of Oxford, have been able to show that when a new application becomes available on the Web, users adopt it independently of their friends’ opinions.  However, when the popularity of an app crosses a certain threshold, its popularity draws in other people and its adoption can expand suddenly and massively.

Suddenly the cliff ahead of the Lemmings can be a lot higher.

You are not alone


While this phrase brings to mind X-files, what it means to social media researchers is that the web has ensured that no one ever needs to be lonely.  Online networking has seen to that.

Before considering how genuine or how close your internet friends really are, you might think about whether that matters.

One of the benchmarks for friendship networks was set by Robin Dunbar, evolutionary anthropologist, Oxford University, in his book, How many friends does one person need?  Dunbar theorises that there is a "cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships" – sometimes known as Dunbar’s number.  He suggests that the primate brain can only manage 150 genuine social relationships.

Interestingly, Facebook’s owners say that the average number of friends for any member is currently around 130, which is not far from Dunbar’s number.

On the other hand, there are contacts both below and above that number with whom we may not have a close relationship, but because of social networking tools we are able to keep in touch much more easily than ever before.  What is more, those “weak ties” may have more influence on our lives than you may think.  One researcher who has found that weak ties of friendship are highly influential on your opinions and your success is Mark Granovetter (American Journal of Sociology, vol 78).  For instance, people get jobs through opportunities passed on by affiliates rather than close friends.

Other studies demonstrate how use of Facebook increases self-esteem.  Nicole Ellison of Michigan State University is quoted in the New Scientist, 10 July 2010, as saying “Support and affirmation for weak ties could be the explanation” (Ellison et al, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Vol. 12).

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is growing evidence that making friends and influencing people go hand-in-hand online. The New Scientist article quotes a series of experiments by Michael Kearns of the University of Philadelphia, which found that well-connected individuals had greater influence than others in the online world in the same way as their counterparts do in the real world.  (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 106, p.1347).  The researchers found that those with up to 300 friends were rated increasingly popular, but after that number their social appeal seemed to drop away.

Facebook’s own research backs up the correlation between subjective well-being and web-based social networking.  Contentment from site use is attributed by Sandy Pentland of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the ability of networkers to broadcast to their social group which, he says, means we may never feel alone.

So you can now get back to those emails and respond positively to those sent from members of Linked-in asking you to join their network.  But when you get to 300, you can relax, or unfriend some as you befriend others.  Good networking.

Posted by Joseph Peart
Facebook seems to have survived the storm of protest from members when it exposed their security by enforcing changes that overrode some user privacy choices.  The problem hasn’t gone away however.

New Scientist, 5 June 2010, notes that Facebook chief, Mark Zuckerberg, ignores the human factor at his peril.  The 50 privacy settings with 170 options simply did not consider the human computer interface (HCI).

“It’s a problem for everyone involved in online self-publishing,” Anthony House of Google told an Index on Censorship in London, according to New Scientist.  House is European policy manager for Google and admitted, “We need to be more intuitive about human-computer interaction.”  He was referring to the automatic enrolment of Gmail users to the Buzz social network when they failed to opt out as the Buzz introduction appeared on their screen.

When Ann Blandford, an HCI researcher at the University College London investigated, she told New Scientist that she found the meaning of many privacy settings is obscure.  She proposed that we each be able to preview our social sites as if we were a stranger, a nominated friend or a friend-of-a-friend.  “I want to be able to log in as someone else and look at my online profile…” she said (p. 19) – an experience akin to an out-of-body experience!

If that seems slightly weird, how about something really creepy in the same issue of New Scientist?  You can use Lifenaut’s website  to create a basic visual interface of yourself (your auto-face may speak, wink or blink) which can communicate with your descendents long after you have gone.  You could choose to deploy Image Metrics’ software (at $US500,000 a crack) and create a much more lifelike digital version, which would be less frightening to your grandchildren. 

If you want to see these possibilities in a Scifi story, then watch out for the American TV drama Caprica, which replaces Zoe Graystone with an exact digital copy of her brain implanted into a humanoid robot .

The question is: how private would that digital shadow of yourself be if it is stored in the "Cloud" or would hackers sabotage your loving messages with hurtful fiction?

Submitted by Joseph Peart
How many of you now regard Facebook as a hobby – and alternative to reading and watching TV?  I see students in AUT University's media laboratories logged in to Facebook when I used to think they would be working on assignments.  In the same manner, some of my family members gravitate to our home computer for a quick ‘fix’ of Facebook when they come to visit.  (We have placed the laptop in a corner of the living room to socialise the addicts.)

Some organisations block access to Facebook, Twitter, and even Trade Me at all times or all day except during the lunch hour.  For employers, it is a tough decision.  One hears of staff being fired for spending too much time on social media sites.  It can simply get out of hand.  Other research tells us that the internet has increased productivity, so organisations leave all sites open to staff.

I was interested to read the strategies adopted by more experienced users of social media in an article by Cindy Krischer Goodman in the Miami Some of their ideas sounded quite familiar.  For instance, like me, one user would reply promptly to some messages and comments that needed a response, and wait until the end of the day to respond to the others.  In my case ‘the end of the day’ can be 48 hours later.

In the Miami Herald article: Amy Webb, CEO of Webbmedia Group, recommends that we set our own goals for social media so it becomes a tool, not a distraction; Niala Boodhoo of Poked blog suggests a Mozilla Firefox plug-in called Leechblock.  This allows you to set a time limit for a site, or block access for a set period; Alex de Carvalho uses two screens, one for work and one for personal contact and uses his iPhone when he is on the move or waiting for an appointment.  He doesn’t separate his time between business and leisure.

Furthermore, ideas are being promoted every day for using social media as part of a business’s marketing mix.  But they are more than that: They are alternative media to mainstream news and vital tools for building relationships which mingle friendship with custom and service.  Social media also provide forums for reputations to be built and destroyed.
That is why they have been claimed so strongly by public relations practitioners and why they have attracted the attention of researchers including the Public Relations Society of America.  In a recent, highly readable ‘2009 Digital Readiness Report’  the authors warn that some organizational communi­cators seem somewhat bedazzled by social media.  They appear to see social networking, micro-blogging and blogging as more important than actively managing the content at their own corporate website. 

This may indicate a fundamental gap in judgement with respect to online communication planning – partic­ularly when other research shows that people find company websites more credible than social media channels: For instance,
he ‘2009 Edelman Trust Barometer’ notes that, as a source of company information, a company’s own website is seen as more credible than business blogs, personal blogs, social networking sites and advertising. 

And trust is the gold standard of successful public relations.


We’ve just received a note, that for those who don't know – Facebook has agreed to let third party advertisers use your posted pictures without your permission. (also known as "opt-out").

This being the case, internet users are once again expected to protect their own property like ‘settlers on a frontier without borders’.   Meanwhile, we have less than a fortnight to make submissions on New Zealand Government legislation which would place more power in the hands of internet service providers ( ‘warlords’ or ‘sheriffs’) .

The viral email advises Facebook users to click on ‘Settings’ up at the top where you see the Log out link.  Select ‘Privacy’. Then select ‘Newsfeeds’ and ‘Wall’.  Next, select the tab that reads ‘Facebook Ads’. There is a drop-down box, select ‘No One’.  Then SAVE your changes.

This action may help defend your privacy in this single instance, but the need for this message adds fuel to the ongoing debate over the protection of copyright as intellectual property on the internet.  It is especially significant in social media, where so much sharing occurs spontaneously.

Whether you regard your images as your private property or your intellectual property is a moot point.  The problem that both issues highlight is that the internationalisation of web-based media is difficulty of enforcing one country’s law outside its own borders.  That leaves the major internet site owners, software suppliers and internet service providers as the arbiters, not just of ethics, but of justice on the frontiers of Web 2.0.  

Whether they act as ‘warlords’ or ‘sheriffs’ is the question we must ask ourselves.

Facebook’s seemingly unilateral exposure of our private lives comes partly as result of users’ naivety, and partly as a deliberate hands-off policy, of (US-based) Facebook not wanting to act as sheriff in disputes over ‘borrowed’ images.  

The rule has to be: If it’s on Facebook, it is already public.

 This is important now because, although the majority of the New Zealand Copyright (New Technologies) Amendment Act 2008 No 27 came into force on 31 October 2008,

Section 92A (relating to ISP liability) was delayed because of the power it would place in the hands of internet service providers (sheriffs and warlords).  Submissions are still being sought on the proposed policy to address repeat copyright infringement in the digital environment.  We are invited to send our comments to  by Friday 7 August 2009.  

 New Zealand legislators should think about times when a ‘sheriff’ looks more like a ‘warlord’.  Such an instance was recorded a couple of weeks ago by Canadian blogger, Jesse Hirsch.  Hirsch received a ‘take down’ notice from YouTube regarding a video, posted three years earlier, from RoBTV which has since been rebranded as BNN.  He added that he was not the only one, and that Jason Crocker from the Canadian Coalition for Electronic Rights also had some RoBTV/BNN videos pulled from YouTube. 

 Jesse notes: “Jason also did some digging to find that there were dozens of videos from BNN on YouTube and it was just the ones around the copyright issue that had been forcibly removed.”

Jesse Hirsh is an internet strategist, researcher, and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada. 

His views are somewhat balanced by those of Sharon Housley, who manages marketing for the website, FeedForAll.  She says that, in the USA, offering a feed for syndication does not in fact grant any legal rights to anyone to reuse the feeds content beyond what the copyright laws grant as ‘fair use’.  (Commentators suggest that interpretations of ‘fair use’ in a New Zealand business context may differ greatly from those in the US.)

 Housley writes: “In practice, while your feed might legally be protected, you could literally spend weeks attempting to protect the contents of your feed. Legal gray areas are introduced with search engines indexing feeds and RSS Feed Directories including copywritten [copyright protected?] feeds, in their categorized directories.”

She asks: “How do you distinguish between a legitimate search engine, RSS directory and someone simply reproducing the contents of a feed for personal gain?  

 Housley recommends that appropriate credit is given, and that site managers include links back to their website in the item description field, or use teaser copy in the RSS feed's Item description field, linking back to the home website which contains the full contents of the post.

In the UK, the debate has been at least partly guided by the HM Treasury-sponsored Gowers Review of Intellectual Property, published in 2006.  In that report, Andrew Gowers argues that in the modern world, the UK's economic competitiveness is increasingly driven by knowledge-based industries, innovation and creativity. Therefore, said Gowers: “Intellectual Property (IP) - protecting and promoting innovation - has never been more important.” 

 To ensure the correct balance in IP rights the Gower Review recommends:
·                     Ensuring the IP system only proscribes genuinely illegitimate activity, allowing some 'private copying' – E.G. The right of an individual to legally transfer music from CD to their MP3 player; 
                     Enabling access to content for libraries and education establishments,
                     Recommending that the European Commission retains the 50-year-term of copyright protection for sound recordings and related performers' rights.
, here in New Zealand, submissions on Section 92A (relating to ISP liability) of the Copyright (New Technologies) Amendment Act 2008 No 27 must be made to  by Friday 7 August 2009.  So move quickly if you feel strongly about this.

  by Joseph Peart.   27 July, 2009.