Friday, May 11, 2012

Mining your Social Network

Stream of Consciousness Ramblings on Social Media...

On Being Human
No sentient being exists in isolation. Beings coexist together with others of their kind drawing on a sense of community, with the potential to work together to build things bigger than any one among them could even conceive of, alone. And perhaps this characteristic isn't so much restricted to just sentient beings. Are ants sentient? Bees? Both have fairly well-developed colonies.

Some leading technology companies [citation needed] work on the notion of Hive Intelligence - where reconfigurable sub-components of a systems can combine together in different ways to best adapt themselves to solve problems in some fairly different settings. Artificial intelligence has developed to a point where adaptive robots can be constructed where small robots collaborate and configure themselves into a larger automaton to solve new and difficult problems. Adaptive machines are fascinating - the Borg were arguably the most interesting race from Star Trek: The Next Generation. But we digress... The things that make societies and civilizations interesting, is mostly the collected knowledge of the species - knowledge that is accumulated and grown over millenia - an idea nicely discussed in the H.G. Wells novel "Christina Alberta's Father".

Humans are among the most complex of beings to ever exist. Environmental adaptation is almost second nature to us. Unless we are completely asocial, as some of our species sometimes are, we build networks of relationships wherever we go. And these networks evolve over time. In this post, we examine one aspect of the power of social networks, from the standpoint of network establishment, evolution, degradation, and regeneration, with a view to studying the power of this medium, and why it is perhaps unlikely that a single social networking platform will continue to predominate the global conversation.

The Times, ... They Are A Changin'....
"Know yourself and your enemy. You need not then fear the result of a thousand battles."
                                                                 -- Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"

People born into the digital age are grow up in a world where email, mobile phones, and texting are commonplace. This world also serves as an interesting laboratory to study (social) network evolution. How do relationships change over time? Mining historical email data can provide valuable clues. What bonds were stronger at what age? How does the relative strength of these bonds change? How does age of the individual, time (which generation the individual belonged to), and place (geography, and associated cultural context) define what bonds are "important", which media are used, for which aspect of social interaction, and what, and how much data is shared?

The Lonely Network
In other words, every human being is a DG (Directed Graph from Graph Theory, which may not necessarily be Acyclic in this case) in social network terms, with a node representing themselves at the center and other nodes representing their "friends". Social media connect these DGs together, "decentralizing" or democratizing them. But we can of course, learn a lot from even a single individual's graph, and studying that is perhaps much easier anyway.

In related posts, we start our exploration of this idea. In the post titled "The Reverse Inbox", we present a simple prototype that de-constructs a sample gmail mailbox, uniquely anonymizes every contact to protect the innocent, then presents a view of the mailbox owner's social network. An advantage we have with experiments of this nature is that given the large amounts of storage now available on free Internet email services, no one ever has to delete all their email, so histories going back several years can be easily extracted from even such a simple exercise.

We can see what links are important, in which directions, mine the network to infer the relative strengths of people's relationships, and construct a snail trail graph showing their evolution - the strengthening and weakening of different links, over time. We hypothesize that links tied to family, close friends, and co-workers grow stronger, with the latter fading as one moves from one job or career to the next.

When these lonely networks are joined however, the decentralizing process adds a new capability. Nodes that were hitherto unconnected in each individual's network now have paths between them. This is a concrete example of Metcalfe's Law in action: "The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of nodes within it". You are node A, you want to get to node C, but don't know the way. The network tells you how to reach C via B, D, ...

How Social Are Social Media?
This also brings us to another idea. In Facebook and LinkedIn, all links between nodes (i.e. people) are bi-directional by default. In other words, friends are only friends if both people acknowledge the relationship, even if one does this somewhat reluctantly in some cases. Social networking seems to have misplaced the idea of "polite blocking" that was widely supported and prevalent in the Instant Messaging space. Twitter is somewhat different though, with people collecting followers like a non-rolling stone gathers moss, without necessarily pro-actively accepting each new follower into the fold. Arguably, these lead to different social dynamics.

Even more interesting is the fact that in Facebook it is relatively easy to "unfriend" someone - break the link. Can't do this so easily in LinkedIn - why, you might even need to call the company to get someone off your network. So connections on LinkedIn are perhaps worth more than those on Facebook - harder to break must mean a higher standard to forge - or people will eventually migrate to this behavior. For Twitter, we have the notion of "Social Capital": the number of one's followers. Links are cheap for individuals, but have greater value to the people they follow - since they contribute to social capital. Perhaps there is a business model here - celebrities, products, or groups being followed can set a limit to the number of links they will accept, based on certain criteria, and monetize the power of social networking per link accepted. If nothing else, perceived scarcity increases perceived notional value. (see other blog post on "Monetizing Internet Services")

A Heaven for Dead Networks?
What happens when networks die? What is death exactly? Without waxing philosophical, we can learn some lessons from examples of "death" in the social space. Two examples that leap to mind here are Friendster (now seeing a revival in Asia?) and MySpace. But to die, one has to be alive first.

Networks gain a measure of life through their expanse (number of nodes) and connected-ness (number of links). Smaller, strongly linked networks are more cohesive and perhaps provide better "value" to their constituent nodes than larger, more sparsely connected ones. Some combined measure of these two metrics would define the value that individuals connected on the network can derive from their association with it. It also stands to reason that perhaps each link in the network DG should also be weighted according to its importance given some of the discussion in the previous section.

To complete the anthropomorphic comparison: As the total metric for a network grows, it springs to life. As the rate of change of these metrics increases, the network transitions into adolescence and adulthood. As growth slows, it transitions to maturity and old age, and as nodes leave and links dangle or get deleted, the total metric decreases, and the network slowly atrophies and then dies.

Dr. Jure Leskovec at Stanford University does some interesting work with social networks including the study of the diffusion of information e.g. viral marketing and inferring social connectedness from the spread of disease within a population. His very interesting talk is here.

The Fountain of Eternal Youth
So how to stay younger longer? Since value builds from network effects and positive externalities, the best way to retain users is to a. grow value through "sticky" network services, b. evolve individual users' view of their immediate "vicinity" in their social graph to meet their social needs, and c. make it harder for them to leave (i.e. increase switching costs).

As an example, Facebook does (tries to do) all three. (a) by building their network as a social platform on which other companies like gaming firms Zynga can build and host interactive multi-player games, Facebook credits - its own currency, etc. (b) by enabling support for various kinds of interactions (professional vs. college vs. ...) and (c) by holding on to users' data and encouraging them to share more through features like "timeline".

As more users sign on, unless they can move taking their networks with them, it gets harder and harder for them to go elsewhere, especially since they have invested a lot of time building up their "presence" in the social graph, and all the connections they have established. This ensures survival of the network for a while - at least until the majority tire of it.

Forward the Federation
By no means is the battle for supremacy in this arena over. There are features Facebook lacks. Google+, Path and others are building these into their core DNA rather than as adaptations or mutations into an existing animal, and it will be interesting to see what the future brings.

At 900M users and counting, Facebook is likely not to get too many new users given almost 1 in every 6 people on the planet are already on it, and to a large extent, geography dictates social network choice (there are other social networks that are growing faster in Asia). Perhaps the next step in the evolution of social network technology is "federated social networking", but we leave that for discussion on another day.

If federated social networking becomes a reality however, the impact of "stickiness" is reduced and walls between networks become more porous, and a new dynamic will come into play.