Social (Network) Science

Fact: The social-networking site LinkedIn claims as users “17,000,000+ Professionals, 500,000+ Senior Executives, Executives from 498 Fortune 500 companies, [and] 65,000 new Professionals every week.”

Analysis: Since I hold the title of “chief technology officer” for my group at Microsoft, I regularly check the widely-read blog CTOvision, written by Bob Gourley, CTO of Crucial Point.

CollaborationlogosYesterday he posted a very solid summary of several social networking tools, including my preferred LinkedIn.  If you’re not up to speed on the genre it is a helpful cheatsheet and “buyer’s guide.”

The technology area deserves the attention. There are a dozen or more such sites for each that Gourley covers, and he chooses the ones that have shown growth and potential longevity; why invest any time adding personal data to a site just to watch it disappear? We’ve all had that happen. And yet hockey-stick growth has to be managed – LinkedIn for example has come in for some critical attention for some snafus along the way.

Let’s look at some efforts to understand more about the science behind the software….

There have been many attempts to explore the science of social networks in the digital era (easy-read stories in the New York Times, The Deal magazine, and several others looking at more generic sites like MySpace and Facebook and at specialized uses for communities like the Defense Department). Yesterday’s Times also had an almost comical account of a purported algorithmic approach to predicting success or failure of tech startups based in large part on the social networking attributes of the founders (“A Start-up Says It Can Predict Others’ Fate“). Caveat emptor.

But more serious scientific study of “affiliation networks” is needed to understand the complex interplay of online and offline relationships, the “network effects” of burgeoning unseen links, and the governmental and societal ramifications of a world populace tied together by increasingly dense connections.

This month Microsoft Research is opening its latest lab (at a time when others are retrenching their research dollars), to be called Microsoft Research New England and based in Cambridge, Mass.  (If you wonder “why the Boston area?” then you never saw Spinal Tap.) This new lab’s focus is on interdisciplinary research; Managing Director Jennifer Chayes (a mathematical physicist) says in an interview definitely worth reading just what needs to be done “if we’re going to help build the social networks of tomorrow”:

“We want to combine core computer science, especially the more mathematical and theoretical aspects of it, with the social sciences, and we want to do it in an environment in which we won’t just have researchers doing fantastic research side-by-side, but they also will be helping to create new fields at the boundary of computer science and the social sciences.”

I’ll be visiting MRNE soon, and am looking forward to exploring use by governments of new affinity-networking approaches which can improve the “user experience” of the average citizen in dealing with local, state, and federal government – as well as improve the ability of government(s) to communicate and collaborate internally.

But until then I’m stuck with the more prosaic social networks available today. In his review, Gourley ponders the potential of SecondLife‘s virtual environment for social networking, but for now I’m sticking to the Web 2.0 series of tubes for that purpose. Hyperlinking is far faster and more utilitarian for me, and integrates much more easily into normal everyday business life. For example, LinkedIn has a nifty Outlook plug-in that allows me (among other functions) to “grab” any name/address/contact info from an email, simply by highlighting the info and clicking “Grab,” which automatically creates an Outlook contact with all the fields properly filled out, or updates an existing one – which saves me a few seconds each time and makes the computer’s intelligence do the work. 

Works for me – I’m lazy!

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One Response

  1. […] There are no solidly scientific routes to “connecting the dots” when the dots themselves are incomplete, fuzzy, and drawn from the amorphously chaotic world of human behavior.  These two articles drove me to think about an upcoming visit to the new Microsoft Research New England lab, in Cambridge Mass., which will focus on the social sciences, and I turned to the web to refresh myself on the background of its fascinating director Jennifer Chayes, a specialist in mathematics, theoretical computer science and cryptography (I wrote about her earlier in a post about social networks and the social sciences). […]


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