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Also in China, Youtube has effectively been replaced by Youku, which has 1,500 license holders, including television and film companies in that country regularly uploading content.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


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