Here are a few of the major stakeholders that gather around any social media effort. Each role can be further divided into sub roles who specialize in particular kinds of behavior like starting discussions, arguments, or answering questions. Each stakeholder has information needs that are related but somewhat different from other stakeholders. Building effective social media systems requires delivering the right information to each population.
Many of my colleagues and I have applied social network analysis to Internet social media. Email, mail lists, wikis, blogs, newsgroups, web boards, photo sharing systems and social networking services all create “network” structures. In several papers we documented the ways that contributors in discussion groups in Usenet and similar threaded discussion repositories had distinct network patterns that reflected their different roles in the community. We have identified several roles in terms of the ways they link to others and how those others link to one another.
Three roles are particularly critical, despite their relatively rare occurrence in most threaded discussion environments. Answer people are the relatively rare people who provide a useful answer to potentially hundreds of question askers; discussion people reply to one another about the topics introduced by the topic starting “reply magnet”. These roles are visible in the details of the patterns of reply and connection within social media repositories. The relative balance of these roles (and others) determines the nature of the social media space: is it a discussion space, a flame zone, a Q&A exchange spot, or a place to swap binary files? The balance of answer people to discussion people is one dimension of variation among social media spaces, for example.
Many of these patterns are described in:
- Welser, Howard T., Eric Gleave, Danyel Fisher, and Marc Smith. 2007. Visualizing the Signatures of Social Roles in Online Discussion Groups. The Journal of Social Structure. 8(2).
- Fisher, D., Smith, M., and Welser, H. You Are Who You Talk To, Proceedings of Hawaii International Conference on Software and Systems (HICSS), January 2006. (Best Paper, Digital Media and Communication Program).
Finding additional roles is an open area of research. Other roles have been described but now need to be grounded in empricial measures of behavior and connection over time. How many different roles exist? What are the defining qualities of these roles? What balances of roles with one another are necessary for effective collective production of valuable common goods like answers to questions, well written wiki documents, photo archives, social support and other kinds of online assets.
After ten years at Microsoft Research I have decided it is time to move on. My time at MSR has been a remarkable one. I have had the opportunity to work with very smart and focused people intent on making technical strides on many defining aspects of computing. It has been a pleasure to work with many talented people to bring better analysis of social media into the user generated content creation and consumption loop. We built tools to data mine and visualize conversation repositories to give participants and managers better reports on their activities. We discovered the ways participants in social media repositories perform different roles that can be identified by different patterns of computer-mediated interactions. We applied those ideas to personal email triage and patterns of email usage. We pushed ideas related to mobile devices and location based social networking and object annotation. We built a number of tools for visualizing the patterns and (social) network structures in the data created by the use of computer-mediated interaction tools.
These projects point towards a world in which computers and mobile devices do more than connect us to the network, they will sense the world around us and reason about both our location and who is with us. Combined with back-end data mining, new mobile sensor studded devices are coming that will alter the nature of social interaction in its last, most analog hold out: face-to-face, co-present interaction.
I want to explore this change in the nature of what the sociologist Erving Goffman referred to as the “interaction order“. We are living through the early stages of the “electrification of the interaction order”, a time in which the ways we interact with one another is changed dramatically by the availability of mobile social information networks. Online social networking, content sharing and discussion systems have effects that are multiplied when channeled through a device carried by every person and active in every interaction, however fleeting.
Imagine going to a business meeting or conference and having Facebook suggest that you link to the people you spent the longest time talking to. Mobile social computing will add more content to the torrent already generated by “desktop” experiences. Some projects are already digging into this area: good examples include companies and products like nTag.com, SpotMe.Com, and the many trail and path tracking applications now appearing in the iPhone AppStore. Scott Counts and I wrote about a location based social networking application that demonstrated many of these features as well as search and matching features that have yet to appear in the first wave of production systems.
A first step in this direction is to focus more on the analytic back-ends that will be needed for the management of all forms of social media repositories. Community analysis servers that provide a dashboard of community health and activity indicators will be a critical differentiating feature for community hosts, managers, and leading participants. Successful communities will be those that can cultivate contribution the best while managing conflict at the lowest cost. Once desktop bound social encounters are channeled through an analytics console more real-world events sensed by mobile devices can be added to the mix.
I am looking forward to some time to push back and reflect more about these changes while looking around for new ways to explore them. I will take some time to get my family settled into our new home in California. I hope to catch up with many people! I will also be visiting Yale, University of Maryland and Berkely for talks this fall. I plan to attend the Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium in Redmond (it will be good to be back!) and the Conference on Information and Knowledge Management (CIKM) in Sonoma.
My old email@example.com email address is no longer active, so please contact me at marc.smith.email at gmail.com.
I look forward to staying in touch with my many friends and colleagues at Microsoft while finding the time now to meet with a wide range of people interested in social media.