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

“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.

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.

analysis has led to insight into online relationships and the
psychology of internet interaction in comparison to the way people talk

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

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.

areas they are looking at include what happens when people post negative
Facebook status messages and how it might impact upon its network.

what practical applications does Adamic’s meme research have?
“Typically, what you want to do with memes is filter them out because
they can skew a lot of things!”

On the other hand, this kind of
analysis could be used to predict things such as someone’s political
alliances. Adamic found that viral media related to science fiction –
Star Wars and zombies – are associated more strongly with liberal
leaning individuals, while conservative Facebook users are more likely
to post about beer or taxes.

One take-home message that marketers
would love to harness is the four keywords associated with successful
viral media: true, funny, awesome, and cute.

Senior director of
engineering at LinkedIn Igor Perisic talked about the future of the
social networking site and how it plans to change how people use it.

five years time, we want LinkedIn to provide very accurate job
recommendations, but also be more than a place for jobs,” he said.

need many elements to be successful, not just job offers –
recommendations for good courses to take, people to meet and so on.

“New LinkedIn users have grown up on Facebook, so they get how to use social networking sites to their full benefit.”

also hosted an industry-specific event alongside the academic
conference. “It’s a chance for world-class start-ups like Datahug,
Storyful and NewsWhip to discuss the future of news generation through
social media with the likes of the Guardian and C-Span,” said Breslin.

is a very large international academic research community here, so it’s
a great opportunity for Irish researchers to meet their peers and share
research on the beneficial applications of platforms like Facebook and

Conor Murphy, CEO and co-founder of Irish company
Datahug, talked about how his business unlocks the value that exists
within enterprise networks.

“It’s all about relationships. We
automatically and privately extract this information and provide you
with relationship scores between people in your company.”

With a
distinctly Irish perspective, Murphy explains that Datahug wants to
“automate the pub” by finding out who knows who within an enterprise
setting, proving that social media is nothing new and just an
alternative way of networking over a pint of Guinness.

Publication Date

June 7th 2012


The Irish Times