Putting social media under the microscope
THIS WEEK 300 social media researchers have descended upon Dublin for the International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media – an antidote, perhaps, to naysayers who dismiss the complexities of online networks as repositories for banal and witless chatter.
In its sixth year, the conference brings scientists and technologists from around the world together to talk about topics as diverse as using Foursquare to understand how urban dwellers shape their city to modeling the spread of disease from social interactions.
“As a term ‘social media’ can seem a bit vacuous and associated with online marketers who just want to sell you stuff,” said Dr John Breslin, researcher at the Digital Enterprise Research Institute, NUI Galway.
“But there is recognition that the web as a whole is social; it’s the way we do things now,” said Breslin, who is a co-organiser of the conference alongside the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence and University College Dublin.
One of the keynote speakers was Prof Lada Adamic who has worked with HP Labs, investigated relationships within virtual world SecondLife and is carrying out research within Facebook.
Adamic studies memes – viral images, videos and text – and how they spread on Facebook. Her research looks at what kinds of media are popular, and how and why they spread like wildfire online.
It turns out that comedy and parody play an important role in propagation of online material, which explains why Chuck Norris jokes and LOLcat pictures seem to be everywhere.
This analysis has led to insight into online relationships and the psychology of internet interaction in comparison to the way people talk offline.
Adamic explains that the spread of viral messages online can be compared to biological evolution. “Memes will spread virally but they also mutate. Messages change as they spread through the network,” she said.
Humour and parody aside, Adamic has found that the most popular messages to be passed around online are cancer memes. “People post messages on Facebook along the lines of ‘If you know someone who had disease x, copy and paste’.
“Many people can relate to this and so it propagates successfully across networks, as do rare conditions due to the fact that people who post about this are usually well connected.”
Adamic is one of the few researchers who has access to Facebook data. There are also psychologists working within the social networking site on the area of sentiment analysis, she adds.