‘Reality Mining’ in a Real Social Network

6 08 2008

“Reality Mining” is a new form of research that employs real data, such as cell phone use, to learn about trends that might otherwise be overlooked.  The method seems to be particularly effective in dispelling the myths of conventional wisdom.

It also reveals the gap between reality and virtual reality. MIT student Benjamin Waber used the technique to study social patterns among a group of workers. Instead of asking people about their social habits, Waber outfitted each employee with an electronic monitor that tracked the location and duration of all their conversations.

Waber’s results, as documented in Wired magazine, show that social networks in the real world function differently from social networks in cyberspace; sometimes the two are diametrically opposed.

On the Web, the best way to solve a problem is to engage an extensive network; the person who provides information, advice, or answers is often someone you know only vaguely — a weak link.

In the face-to-face world, though, Waber says, groups are more productive when the team members know each other well, sharing extremely strong links. That’s because face-to-face teamwork requires intimacy, he says, and “when you’re among friends you can really capitalize on preexisting protocols” — nods, grunts, in-jokes — for talking and listening.

The research also gave Waber strong insight into how information flows through the company. Waber found that one person in each network serves as a super-connector, getting news out to the team. Not surprisingly, that person is almost never the manager. It’s usually the person working below the radar who’s getting the real stuff done.

Of course, the knock on reality mining is the obvious infringement of privacy, which will only increase as the method grows and continues showing imperssive results. But according to MIT researcher Nathan Eagle, the key is finding ways to use the information that serve the common good. 

“Right now practically the only use for it is for law enforcement to use it to investigate crimes and put people in jail,” he says. “I just think it can be put to better use to deliver services that are interesting or that help people.”